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Solution will involve increased expenditures, says Racicot

HELENA - Gov. Marc Racicot charged a new task force Friday with determining the extent of the state's teacher shortage and salary problems and recommending solutions for consideration of the next Legislature.

"We're not funding our teachers, our most trusted profession," Racicot said. "But if we place schools in a position of seeing their own demise because they can't keep teachers, it's simply wrong. I don't know what to do about it."

But the governor was certain of one thing: "I know that, inevitably, it will involve some increased expenditures. There's just no way around it."

Racicot and his policy adviser for education and labor, Erik Burke, provided some ideas for review, including targeted tax incentives, targeted scholarship and loan repayment plans, and a mentoring program with corresponding salary adjustments.

Committee members agreed on two common refrains: improving state funding of schools and making sure proposals don't compete with schools' already limited budgets.

"We can't suggest any proposals that will come at the expense of reducing money to give to schools for operating," said Bill Cooper from the Office of Public Instruction. "This has to be in addition to money in the general fund."

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, agreed.

"We've got to find a way to really find some sustainable funding for schools," he said.

Racicot said he considers the task force a gathering of experts who will bring some realism to the expectations, because all of the members have experienced the dynamics of schools across the state as well as funding problems.

Committee members voiced displeasure that their suggestions could become moot with actions legislators may take in the upcoming special session. The governor's original call for the special session has been expanded by Republicans to include tax reform efforts, measures that could further reduce funding to schools.

"The special session has the ability to trash any good ideas we might have," said Eric Feaver, President of the combined Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers.

Racicot said he hopes good sense will prevail.

The committee discussed several ideas about teacher retirement, including a deferred retirement program that would allow members to remain employed while collecting or delaying receipt of retirement benefits.

Other retirement proposals would modify teacher salaries when transferring between schools and create a statewide health care plan for retired teachers.

Loran Frazier of the School Administrators of Montana offered a proposal to fully fund teachers' contributions to Social Security, not just the employers' portion. Other states have taken the same action.

"It doesn't raise their salaries, but it would mean a lot more take-home pay," Frazier said.

Melton asked the governor if he was open to lifting the restriction on fund-to-fund transfers, a move that would allow schools to access money in one fund to meet needs in another area, such as teacher salaries.

Another suggestion on the list was to offer bonuses for shortage areas, a measure other states have used to counter teachers' hesitance to relocate to rural areas.

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