Montana’s public school advocates are giving the 2013 Legislature good grades, while supporters of private school alternatives are hoping the governor won’t veto the one bill they were able to pass.
“It was a very good session,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association. “This Legislature did a pretty darn good job breaking through the partisan difficulties.”
Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, praised the Legislature for making “a significant investment” in public schools.
“In general the education community is very happy with the outcome of the session,” said Mike Waterman, Bozeman schools business services director.
Melton said school leaders are “gratified” that lawmakers passed the single most important bill for public schools, Senate Bill 175, even though it offers less property tax relief than originally proposed. It awaits the governor’s signature.
SB 175 would provide about $20 million more from the state for public schools and raise the limits on how much Montana schools can spend next year by a minimum of $23 million and a maximum of $33 million, Melton said.
One breakthrough, he said, is that SB 175 would change that old one-size-fits-all “basic entitlement” that gave tiny Willow Creek and much larger Bozeman schools the same payment. Instead it would give small schools a larger basic payment and provide more to districts that have more students.
SB 175 should provide property tax relief starting, not next year, but the year after, Melton said. Local property taxes for schools will be frozen in place until the state’s share grows by at least $50 million, he said, which should mean about five years of tax relief.
For Bozeman’s public schools, SB 175 would allow spending authority to increase at least $1.1 million in the elementary and middle schools next year, and by $607,000 in the high school, Waterman said. “That is definitely good for us.”
SB 175 also would provide money for test data that’s focused on helping teachers teach students right away, instead of testing that focuses on grading schools, as in the No Child Left Behind approach, Melton said.
It would give schools more flexibility to raise taxes to pay operating costs, if schools reduce taxes for things like busing by the same amount, Melton said. The bill would encourage customizing education to students, so credit is based on students learning the material, not “seat time.”
Waterman said another important bill for Bozeman was House Bill 301, which will allow schools to take on building bond debt up to 100 percent, instead of 50 percent, of their district’s taxable value. That means if Bozeman needs to build a third middle school in a few years, as expected, officials could go to voters sooner with a bond issue, instead of having to wait several years while schools get more and more crowded.
Proponents of private school alternatives saw all charter school bills die this session, though Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, said they got farther than in past years.
Both houses did pass SB 81, Lewis’ bill to provide a 40 percent tuition tax credit for donations to organizations that give parents scholarships to private schools, which he called “a huge victory.” Lewis hopes the governor signs it, while Melton is urging a veto.
“They hate it,” Lewis said of public school groups. “They don’t like the competition.”
The tax credit, which would provide “more bang for the buck” than a charitable tax deduction, Lewis said, could support scholarships to private or even religious schools.
Bob Vogel, MTSBA lobbyist, said public schools oppose the tuition tax credit for the same reasons they oppose charter and other privatization bills, as violations of the Montana Constitution and as siphoning away dollars from public schools.
Juneau said in addition to SB 175, lawmakers provided about $1 million for the Montana Digital Academy, which lets high school students take classes online. They also passed $1 million to support student career organizations, like high school marketing and health occupation clubs, which make school relevant and help reduce dropouts, she said.
Juneau was disappointed lawmakers didn’t pass her proposal to raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18, but said it sometimes takes several sessions to pass a good bill.
Vogel said lawmakers also passed SB 348 to increase school safety. It would allow school officials to get more information about students in the criminal justice system, and allow spending school funds to beef up building safety, for better doors or other improvements.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.