As the 2013 Legislature digs into the second half of the session, Bozeman school officials say they’re cautiously optimistic about the chances of passing a key school-funding bill but are concerned about bills to promote private schools and restrict sex education.

Bozeman School Board trustees Denise Hayman and Heide Arneson and Superintendent Rob Watson on Monday joined a noon video-conference with school leaders from Billings, Great Falls and other large, AA Montana school districts.

“I’m optimistic,” said Hayman, a veteran of past legislative sessions. “Usually we’re working diligently to kill most bills. I’m encouraged we’re working as a state to pass 175.”

Senate Bill 175, carried by Republican Sen. Llew Jones, would use oil and gas tax revenue to support schools, reduce property taxes and give schools more money than the inflationary increase proposed by Gov. Steve Bullock. Hayman said the slight inflation increase was handed to Bullock in the budget prepared by fellow Democrat and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and it “would not adequately fund education.”

Bullock requested a $6.7 million increase for schools for two years. For the first year of the two-year budget cycle that would amount to less than a 1 percent increase, Watson said.

SB 175 was hammered out by a coalition of school groups that are often at odds in the Legislature – including east and west, large and small districts, Arneson said. The bill would benefit school districts like Sidney’s that are impacted by the gas boom, schools that are losing students and those like Bozeman that are growing, Hayman said.

“If we have fights among ourselves, it’s over,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.

SB 175 is the No. 1 priority for education this session, and Melton urged school leaders to come to the Capitol on March 18 to advocate for the bill. Hundreds of school board trustees, teachers, administrators and parents are needed to support it, he said.

Republican Art Wittich, Senate majority leader from Bozeman, wrote in an opinion column in Monday’s, Chronicle that it’s ironic that Republicans are supporting the governor’s inflation funding for schools, but that’s languishing because of the hope of passing instead “a new proposal that increases the inflationary adjustment by 500 percent.”

“Our public schools have always received adequate funding and will continue to do so,” Wittich wrote. School funding must be balanced with the state’s other needs, he wrote, adding it’s “too early in the budget process to commit to such an enormous increase beyond the original common-sense proposals.”

Arneson said she doubted the state judge who ruled the state’s school funding to be inadequate and unconstitutional would agree with Wittich.

Melton said it’s disheartening that after years of making public schools more accountable and transparent, lawmakers are supporting several bills to promote private schools and charter schools that wouldn’t be accountable for using public money effectively. Charter and private schools wouldn’t have to disclose test scores to the public, hire accredited teachers or be accredited, school leaders said.

“All of a sudden, transparency and accountability are out the window,” Melton said. He said money to privatize schools would come out of state funding for public schools.

While some charter school bills, like House Bill 315, are theoretically dead, they can come back to life if amended into other bills, Melton warned.

School leaders also discussed HB 239, a bill to make it easier for parents to take their kids out of sex education lessons. Instead of giving parents the chance to “opt out,” as they can now, parents would have to sign forms to “opt in.” Melton said the way the bill is worded, if one parent objected, none of the students could have the lesson. HB 239 passed the House 56-41 and is being considered by the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety committee.

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

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