A major effort to reform Montana’s public school funding is taking shape, one which would tap oil and gas taxes for schools, give property tax relief and focus dollars on improving education quality.

School officials from Billings, Great Falls, Butte and Bozeman met by video conference Monday to hear Lance Melton, Montana School Boards Association executive director, outline the proposed bill.

The draft bill’s sponsor, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, has been working with statewide school groups to solve differing problems facing large and small school districts, as well as the energy-boom districts hit by a sudden influx of students.

Jones’ proposal seeks to help all schools facing additional costs to meet the new Common Core and accreditation standards. His proposal, currently called LC-132, is being drafted as a bill for the 2013 Legislature.

Bozeman School Board trustees said they like Jones’ proposal.

“Sen. Jones is a lead thinker and architect on education in the state,” said Gary Lusin, Bozeman School Board chairman. “He has a strong passion to see the state has a school system that can succeed … in increasing student achievement, and part of the solution is appropriate funding.”

Jones’ bill would give schools more stable funding and more flexibility in how they use funds, and it would treat both large and small districts fairly, Lusin said. However, Lusin added, the bill “has got a tough road to go.”

“I’m personally very excited about this,” said Denise Hayman, a veteran School Board trustee. She served on an education committee called the K-12 Vision Group that made reform recommendations. “Llew Jones honored that and incorporated a lot of our recommendations. He’s a Republican, which is great.”

Republicans again control both the House and Senate.

Some of the major changes in the proposed bill would:

  • Divert half the state’s oil and gas revenues, roughly $100 million over two years, to schools, though as much as half of that may be offset by lowering other state aid to schools. Diverting oil and gas taxes, Melton wrote, “should substantially reduce (school) district property taxes statewide.”
  • Ensure that school data gathered by the state is “useful” to teachers and parents “to enhance instruction and academic performance of students.” Currently, the state gathers a lot of data, like the No Child Left Behind standardized test scores, which are used for publicly grading schools. But the data come too late to let teachers know where their students need help. A $20 per student “data for achievement payment” would be added to the state’s school funding formula.
  • Give districts an amount of money for each school they operate, instead of giving all districts, large and small, the same “entitlement” amount.
  • Let school districts increase the property taxes going into their general fund without a public vote — if they lower other property taxes, like the busing fund, by the same amount.
  • Count students officially three times a year, instead of two, adding a December count that’s expected to increase the average student count and so increase state per-pupil payments.

Lusin asked if the bill would help districts, like Bozeman, that will need to build new schools but are near the limit on how much bond debt they can take on. Melton said no, but Bob Vogel, MTSBA lobbyist, said different proposed bills would raise bonding limits.

Kirk Miller, former Bozeman superintendent and now School Administrators of Montana executive director, said Jones’ proposal is “very comprehensive” and “well done.” It deals with a lot of challenges, provides money for both schools and tax relief, and “will really help with student achievement,” Miller said.

Melton said in addition to the Montana School Boards Association, AA Schools Caucus and School Administrators, the Montana Rural Education Association and Montana Quality Education Coalition have collaborated on the draft bill. The MEA-MFT union, representing teachers, is “reserving judgment,” Melton said.

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

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