If Montana lawmakers stick with a proposal to cut state school funding by 5 percent, it would actually mean a 14 percent budget shortfall for the Bozeman schools, says School Superintendent Kirk Miller.
That severe a cut would have "a dramatic effect" on the district's ability to provide the educational programs the community expects, Miller said.
But he's not panicking yet.
Legislators on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education approved 5 percent across-the-board cuts last week in public school and higher education budgets on a 4-3 party-line vote. Miller emphasized that lawmakers said that was just "a starting point" and he believes they are "reasonable people."
"I believe the state will continue to invest in the core value of education," Miller said. "Now is not the time to panic. Now is the time to say in a reasonable way what impact we'd have."
There are three reasons that 5 percent cuts would have a bigger impact on local schools, he said.
One is that two years ago, lawmakers used $42 million in federal stimulus money to fund public schools. Now that stimulus money is gone. So lawmakers are starting with state school funding that's $42 million below what schools received from Helena two years ago, and then cutting 5 percent from that.
A second reason for the larger local shortfall, Miller said, is that school costs for power bills, salaries and building upkeep continue to increase.
And the third reason is the one-time money that Bozeman and other school districts used to balance their budgets, including stimulus dollars and other funds, is gone.
The 14 percent shortfall would hit on top of the $750,000 cut in the past two years from Bozeman High School, where enrollment has been slipping, Miller added.
He said he plans to go to Helena to testify when the education subcommittee takes up the funding of K-12 schools.
"We'll do it in purposeful and respectful way," Miller said.
Republican leaders on the education subcommittee defended their decision to reduce education budgets by 5 percent, saying it was a modest and reasonable place to start. It's far easier to add money back if the revenue picture brightens than it is to make deeper cuts at the end of the session, they argued.
Republicans and Democrats so far disagree on whether the state's revenues are decreasing or improving.
Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, chairman of the subcommittee, said he wished Montana was "climbing out of a hole economically," but he thought it would continue at the bottom for a while.
Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, the only local representative on the education subcommittee, protested to fellow lawmakers that, "It is possible to build a scenario of Armageddon to ramp down projections" by including all possible state budget liabilities. "I think the reality is we're dealing with essential services for the state of Montana."
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.