By CURT WOODWARD/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A Republican senator urged fellow lawmakers today to support giving tax-free $10,000 signing bonuses to some new teachers, saying it would help Montana recruit and keep educators for needy schools.
Senate Bill 267, by Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, would establish 500 signing bonuses every year for new teachers. Of those, 100 each would go to teachers in rural areas and to those teaching music, math or science. The remaining 300 would be reserved for those replacing teachers who retire after 26 years or more.
Stapleton's bill calls for a program to begin in the next budget year and end in 2007. While it would cost $5 million annually, Stapleton argued it could save school districts far more money, especially as higher-paid teachers retire.
But more importantly, Stapleton said, the plan would encourage more teachers who get their degree in Montana to stay in the state.
''We're graduating 900 teachers each year and what we know is 700 of them will leave the state - that's incredible,'' Stapleton told the House Taxation Committee.
The panel took no immediate action on the bill Monday.
Bob Vogel with the Montana School Boards Association sup-
ported the plan, and said it would be a significant help to graduates struggling with heavy debt accumulated during their education.
A typical teaching graduate leaves school with about $20,000 in debt, Vogel said, an amount hard to pay down on a meager starting teacher's salary of about $20,000 or less.
''It's difficult to pay for housing, transportation and their loans and
still have anything left,'' Vogel said.
But Eric Feaver with the state teacher's union, known as MEA-MFT, said the program would unfairly boost the pay of new teachers without compensating those who have worked for years in a district.
Feaver also said the source of funding for the bonuses may be unconstitutional because it comes from a special state account dedicated to school funding.
''The bill is a fraud,'' Feaver said. ''Should it pass, there isn't a penny available for these bonuses.''