Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has vetoed two school-related bills, including one that would have allowed the Bozeman School District to build a new middle school before the two existing schools become overcrowded.
The second vetoed bill would have given tax credits to individuals or businesses for donations to private school scholarship funds, like the ACE Montana Scholarships, to which Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte and his wife pledged $4.6 million last year.
“I was surprised and disappointed,” said Steve Johnson, Bozeman schools deputy superintendent, said of the governor’s veto of House Bill 301. Johnson added he’s hoping that legislators will muster the two-thirds vote needed to override the veto.
HB 301 would raise the legal limit on how much debt schools can take on. School debt limits now are set at 50 percent of the taxable value of all property within a school district, and the bill would have doubled that to 100 percent.
Bozeman’s elementary enrollment has been growing so rapidly, its two middle schools, now at 1,251 students, are expected to exceed their combined capacity of 1,470 students in two years, according to the long-range facilities plan.
But under current law, Bozeman can’t take on enough debt to build a third middle school until 2018.
The Bozeman elementary debt limit is $62.4 million, yet it has $54.8 million in outstanding debt for building two new elementary schools and Chief Joseph Middle School. By 2015, as debt is paid off, Bozeman could issue another $15.8 million in bonds — short of the $28 million needed to build another middle school.
If voters can’t be asked to approve a big enough bond issue until 2018, a new middle school wouldn’t open until 2020. By then Bozeman officials estimate they could have 225 more students than the two middle schools are designed to hold.
In his veto message, Bullock wrote that the main focus of HB 301 was to help school districts affected by the oil and gas boom and deal with future growth. Before doubling school debt limits, the governor wrote, it’s more appropriate to let school districts use new oil and gas revenue bonds, created by the school funding overhaul bill, Senate Bill 175, and to let the next round of state property reappraisals kick in.
“If these new tools are not sufficient, I am committed to reevaluating a more modest version of this proposal during the 2015 Legislative Session,” the governor wrote.
The Democratic governor also vetoed Senate Bill 81 on Monday. Of all the pro-private and charter school bills introduced in the 2013 Legislature, SB 81 was the only one to pass both Republican-dominated houses.
SB 81 would have created a tax credit for donations to education improvement and student scholarship organizations, to support private schooling in Montana.
Bullock wrote that Montana parents home-school about 4,000 children and send more than 7,000 to private schools, and he supports their right to do so.
“I do not, however, support legislation that subsidizes that right at the projected cost to the state general fund of more than $6.5 million in the coming biennium,” he wrote.
The governor said he “strongly supports” Montana’s public school system, “the great equalizer in our society.” Public schools, open to all, build “a society that is inclusive and not fragmented,” as the constitution writers wanted, he wrote.
Gianforte, founder of the successful Bozeman company RightNow Technologies, responded in an email that one size doesn’t fit all children equally well, and SB 81 would have given lower-income parents the ability to choose what’s best for their kids. Hundreds of students are on a waiting list for ACE scholarships, he said.
Gianforte wrote that one mother got a scholarship for her son, who was being bullied in public high school while her husband was serving in Afghanistan. Thanks to a $3,000 ACE scholarship, he’s now thriving in a private Bozeman school.
The bill would have saved the state money, Gianforte argued, because the scholarships would cost far less than what the state spends on each student.
“Every Montana family deserves to be able to pick the best education option for their kids,” he wrote. “We have freedom of choice in all other areas of our life; education should be no different.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.