By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
There were many drawn faces at a public discussion about education Tuesday evening, despite a Montana Supreme Court ruling that could mean more state funding for schools.
Educators said schools are in such dire straits that they need immediate relief from the Legislature, even before lawmakers address the court ruling.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller, who chairs the state Board of Public Education, said that without short-term help from the state, Havre schools will be facing substantial cuts.
"I don't like to talk about it, but quite frankly speaking, we're not going to be able to provide the right programming for our kids if we have to make another round of cuts," Miller said. He said Havre schools are facing a loss of 77 students next year, which will result in a $325,000 state funding cut.
"Think about reducing 3.8 percent from a system that's already been trimmed down," he said.
The three education lobbyists sponsoring the meeting, along with members of the audience, all faced the question the Supreme Court decision did not answer: Where to go from here?
In the audience were state Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem, Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, and Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre. Members of the Havre, Cottonwood, KG and Blue Sky school boards, and their school superintendents, also were present, as well as members of the community.
"The Supreme Court decision did not bring this to a conclusion by any stretch of the imagination," said Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition.
A lawsuit by the coalition argued that state funding for education violates the state Constitution's guarantee of adequate funding for a quality education for Montana students. A District Court judge ruled in favor of the suit and the Supreme Court upheld the decision.
"If we don't find a solution to this, the crisis is going to increase and the litigation will as well," Copps said.
The ruling itself did not outline any steps to fix the problem, he said.
"The remedy is up to the Legislature," Copps said.
He said the first step should be for the state to assess educational needs, using one of four types of studies that are recognized nationally. He recommended one of the four, which would cost $700,000.
The study would tell the Legislature what improvements need to be made, and how much they would cost, he said.
He also urged immediate relief for schools as well as pooled health insurance for teachers that districts can join if they choose.
He said Montana schools also suffer from poor retention of quality teachers and nearly the lowest teacher pay in the nation.
As to funding, Copps said the numbers are deceiving. Though total funding per pupil in Montana is at the national average of $7,000, Montana school districts have fewer students, he said. When compared with other small districts, Montana is in the lowest 20 percent, he said.
For immediate relief, the Montana Quality Education Coalition recommends the state add $300 to the amount it gives schools per student in fiscal year 2006 and another $200 in 2007. This would mean a roughly 10 percent increase in the amount of funds the state provides per student, for an additional $77 million in the first year, Copps said.
Havre assistant superintendent Dennis Parman talked about his work bringing Havre into compliance with the Indian Education for All Act. He told legislators that if they could spend money on one thing, it should be educational materials that are suitable for K-12 students.
Darrel Rud, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, and Bob Vogel, director of governmental relations for the Montana School Boards Association, spoke about their own groups' platforms, mentioning health insurance and legislation to address truancy among their groups' priorities.
Havre High School teacher Karla Bolken, a member of the Havre Education Association, attended Tuesday's discussion.
"The teachers know if we're going to get anywhere, we have to be in contact with the legislators," she said. "The idea of a 3.8 percent cut in the district next year is a scary prospect."