By Sen. Matt Rosendale
I spent nearly all of last week either traveling to or participating in meetings in Helena. Sept. 23 the School Funding Interim Commission (SFIC) met to start working on the ten year update for K-12 funding. Sept. 24-25 my regular interim committee (Education and Local Government-ELG) met.
It was the first meeting for the SFIC so we elected a chairperson, adopted rules and agreed upon a basic outline of work. The K-12 funding is a large part of the state’s total budget, roughly $1.5 billion annually out of the $5 billion, and consist of a multitude of complex calculations to determine exactly how much each school and district will receive. Our state constitution mandates equity throughout the entire system which places thresholds not only for minimum investments, but for maximum expenditures by individual districts. With over 400 school districts across the state ranging in size from a few students to thousands of students, this becomes very difficult to achieve.
The next meeting will focus on four main areas: Special Education, Recruitment and Retention of Teachers and Other Staff, District Boundaries and Isolated Rural Schools and, finally, Capital Projects. Several other issues will be put in a survey to be judged by the committee members and prioritized for future consideration.
Fortunately, several members from the SFIC serve on the ELG interim committee. This gives us the ability to schedule these meetings back to back eliminating double travel time. It also allows us to share some of the pertinent information easily between the groups, and shift some of the workload from one committee to the other. The SFIC has the added benefit of including several citizen members which add a whole new perspective. Renee Rasmussen, Superintendent from Bainville, is one of the public members and it is great to have her input and perspectives.
It was brought to the attention of the Education and Local Government (ELG) interim committee that the Office of Public Instruction had been appropriating funds (ANB) to certain school districts for students under the age of five. While this is allowed under statute for specific and limited circumstances, it is supposed to be rare. The Legislature made it very clear during the 2015 session that it had no desire to fund pre-school programs across the entire state. Many in the committee saw this as an attempt by the Office of Public Instruction to manipulate the interpretation of the statute in an attempt to implement statewide pre-school in direct contradiction to legislative intent. When a request was made to the department to provide information to the committee as to which schools were receiving these funds and how many students (under the age of five) they were receiving these funds for, the department could not, or would not, provide the information. We are still waiting for this information and I will continue to press the department until it is received.
Lastly, the Department of Revenue just provided a forecast which shows the state is projecting an ending fund balance of about $455 million. This is approximately $100 million more than what the governor arbitrarily has required that we leave in the bank. With a dramatic increase in the property taxes of many of our residences, and failing infrastructure everywhere we look, one could only hope that the governor would direct some of those funds into vital infrastructure which would benefit the economy and provide some relief to the most vulnerable in our communities on fixed incomes. I’m afraid the distance from the banks in Helena to the needs of eastern Montana is too great for us to receive any investment under this administration.
The good news is that we have a very dedicated and united group of legislators from around the state who are working very hard to direct some of these excess funds into true vital infrastructure projects which will benefit our communities and our state.
As always, I may be reached at: mattrosendale@midrivers.
com or 406-687-3549.