HELENA - A legislative panel charged with crafting a new funding formula for Montana public schools charted no clear course Thursday, as members couldn't agree whether to start determining the multimillion-dollar price tag.
Two Republican members - Rep. Bill Glaser of Billings and Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena - said they're ready to support putting much more state money into public schools.
Glaser tossed out a proposal that could cost as much as $80 million next year, including an increased allocation of $4,000 per classroom and $10 million to improve learning for "at-risk" students.
The state and local governments currently spend about $1.2 billion a year on public schools.
Yet Democratic members said it's too early to talk concrete figures.
Instead, they said the panel should draft a money-distribution formula that will allow schools to address key problems, like hiring teachers, providing good employee health insurance and helping at-risk kids.
"We'd be doing a huge disservice if we just threw some money at (the problem) one time because the one-time money is there," said Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls.
The eight-member Quality Schools Interim Committee, which spent the last three days in Helena listening to hours of reports on school needs and finance, hopes to hammer out a new, proposed school-funding formula this fall.
The proposal is expected to go before a special session of the Legislature, possibly in December, for further action.
The Legislature is under the gun to respond to an order by the Montana Supreme Court, which said current state funding of public schools is inadequate.
Lawmakers increased state funding for schools by about $30 million, or 7 percent, this year with the understanding that the committee would try to craft a longer-term solution.
Thursday's meeting left some observers wondering where the committee is heading.
"I don't think the committee is ready to make any sort of a deal with itself," remarked Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing public school teachers.
Feaver said he hopes the panel would address what he sees as some of the obvious needs facing education in Montana: money for higher teacher salaries, programs to help under-achieving kids and money to offset rising costs of health insurance for school employees.
Yet he also noted that Gov. Brian Schweitzer has yet to weigh in with any proposals for school funding.
"The wild card here is what the governor comes winging in with," Feaver said.
On Thursday, Glaser took the first crack at offering a concrete solution, proposing the $4,000-per-classroom increase, the $10 million for at-risk students, $5 million more for teaching Indian culture in all schools and another $17 million for inflationary costs.
He also said the state might need to provide some help to schools to finance health insurance for employees.
"That's quite a commitment for an old, conservative dryland farmer," he said, referring to himself.
Lewis said those amounts are more than he'd thought about originally, but that he had traveled through his largely rural district lately to visit schools, and felt it could be a reasonable proposal.
"I was frankly embarrassed at the fact that in many areas of the state, we have simply not done the job (to fund schools)," he said.
Kirk Miller, superintendent of schools in Havre, offered perhaps the bluntest assessment of what the committee and the Legislature should do.
Miller, a nonvoting member of the committee, said the state should consider increasing overall spending for schools by 30 percent, to achieve the goals of a "quality education" as guaranteed by the constitution.
That amount would be $360 million a year from all sources, yet Miller said he didn't expect it to happen all at once.
He also said any discussion about school funding can't occur honestly unless policymakers also talk about revenue and tax reform.
"We're at the crossroads right now," Miller said. "Can we develop the political will to make it happen?
"I think it's time for us to start the game. The preseason is over."
State Superintendent of Schools Linda McCulloch also weighed in, saying the committee and the state must look at the long term but also must focus on what she sees as the primary objectives of increasing teacher salaries and ensuring that "at-risk" kids get more help so they can succeed in school.
"The courts didn't say 'Do the right thing if you have the money,' " she said.