School funding a hot state topic
HELENA – The intricacies of public school funding – usually left to a handful of legislators and school
budget types – are becoming a hot topic in Montana, with meetings being held across the state to
discuss schools’ problems and potential ways to solve them.
BY ERICKA SCHENCK SMITH
Gazette State Bureau
The Stand Up for Education Coalition – a baker’s dozen advocacy groups working for schools, teachers,
students, parents and voters – is holding a series of 10 meetings statewide, where participants watch a video
about schools’ difficulties in hiring and keeping teachers and learn about the current financial state of
Montana’s schools, including its colleges and universities.
The Legislature’s Interim Education and Local Government Committee – along with representatives of the
Office of Public Instruction, the governor’s office and the Governor’s Advisory Council on School Funding – has
also been holding a "funding road show" to talk about the advisory council’s findings and recommendations for
In addition, school board members from across the state have been meeting through the Montana Quality
Education Coalition, which is well on its way to completing a study of how much it actually costs to educate
youths in Montana. The study is expected to lead to a lawsuit charging that the state is not providing enough
money to meet its constitutional duty to "provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary
"Very honestly, there’s no better way to identify and articulate what the problems are with school funding
than to have a full discussion and debate," said Lance Melton executive director of the Montana School Boards
The School Boards Association is helping to pay for the funding study, which he said he hopes will be a
"springboard to have a more elevated discussion with the Legislature."
All of the talk about schools going on now is ultimately aimed at influencing the 2003 Legislature, where
state funding for public schools is determined.
"The degree of attention on this issue has a lot to do with the urgency," Melton said. "It’s on everybody’s
minds right now."
Mark Semmens of Great Falls, a member of the Board of Regents who has worked with Stand Up for
Education, said it is important for the government to provide enough funding for public schools and colleges to
do their jobs and for those schools to also prove that they are doing their jobs well. That kind of partnership, he
said, is a boon to economic development.
"What’s important to expanding businesses these days more than anything is an educated, skilled work
force, and they’re looking to locate and expand in states that are supportive of developing that human capital,"
Jeff Hindoien, Gov. Judy Martz’s chief legal counsel and education policy adviser and chairman of the
advisory council, said the funding road show meetings he has attended have helped him understand how state
policy affects every community differently.
"The most important thing I’m getting out of this is taking our ideas we kind of cooked up in this laboratory
in Helena out around the state, where you get more of a local spin on things," Hindoien said.
He said he has also seen firsthand how declining enrollment affects schools under the state’s current,
enrollment-driven funding formula. It was that funding formula that drove the push to form the advisory council
and that many people who work in the schools say is the root of their financial problems.
While most agree the formula needs fixing, there is disagreement on whether the state has to spend more
money to make the formula work for more schools. Most of the advisory council’s recommendations, and the
ones the governor was most supportive of, would cost the state little or no money.
Eric Feaver, executive director of the teachers’ union MEA-MFT, said schools absolutely need more money,
and he hopes that all of the meetings and studies happening this year will help persuade the Legislature to
increase funding for schools.
"Folks are engaged in a significant public debate over the future of this state, and I believe the thrust of this
action is, if we want to grow Montana’s economy, we’re going to have to invest in the primary industry that’s
going to make that happen, and that’s education," Feaver said.
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