Montana public school leaders are gearing up for the 2013 Legislature by working with lawmakers to try to find an agreement on education funding before the session begins in January, rather than scrambling up to the final minutes to avert disaster.

Bozeman School Board Trustee Denise Hayman said Monday that school leaders representing large city districts, small rural districts, school boards and administrators have spent the past two years trying “to put together bills we can all support” before the session starts, “instead of at the 12th hour trying to draft bills.”

School leaders have been talking with a key lawmaker, Republican Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad, who has approached educators, gotten feedback and buy-in and developed a vision for improving school funding, she said.

“That’s a first,” said Hayman, a veteran of a half-dozen legislative sessions. “Usually we’re hanging by a fingernail” struggling to pass a school funding bill in the final hours of the session. “It’s a thoughtful, pro-active approach. Llew has a lot of credibility. And most important, he has an R after his name.”

Hayman was one of five Bozeman School Board trustees who attended Monday’s teleconference call between representatives of the state’s largest AA school districts. The informal meeting was led by the Montana School Boards Association and included local officials from Billings, Great Falls and Kalispell.

While the new governor will be Democrat Steve Bullock, Republicans continue to dominate the state House and Senate, said Bob Vogel, MTSBA lobbyist in Helena. Nine of the 11 legislative leaders represent large AA school districts.

Already lawmakers have requested 169 education bills be drafted, including bills to create charter schools and limit what schools can teach about sex.

Jones has been working on a major school-funding bill, still in draft form, called LC134, but school leaders aren’t sure yet what will be in it, Vogel said.

“This bill really is the most important because it reflects the work” of several years, said Steve Meloy, MTSBA grassroots advocacy specialist.

“I’m both encouraged and concerned,” Vogel said. Republican caucus members recognize that Jones has done a lot of work, but they may want changes before they’ll support his bill. And the Legislature’s leadership, Vogel said, “has shifted a little more to the right.”

Rob Watson, Bozeman school superintendent, said he hopes the Legislature will support $34 million requested by Denise Juneau, superintendent of public instruction, to help schools put the new, more demanding Common Core State Standards into classrooms.

Steve Johnson, Bozeman deputy superintendent, said school officials have been talking with Jones about providing state dollars based on each school within a district, rather than giving the same amount to large and small districts, which would help larger AA districts.

Sen. Jones “is a sharp guy,” Johnson said. “He’s not following the lead of anybody. He’s trying to do what’s right.”

Montana school leaders are also concerned about Congress and the Jan. 1 fiscal “cliff” if the parties can’t agree. It’s not just that the federal government may make across-the-board budget cuts, Vogel said, but federal tax increases could hurt schools as well.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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