By SARAH COOKE/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The coalition of education groups that sued the state over a lack of school funding three years ago urged lawmakers Wednesday to boost state aid by $145 million over the next two years, the Legislature's most expensive school funding request yet.
The proposal by Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, is 81 percent higher than an $80 million plan recently unveiled by the Schweitzer administration. It's also pricier than a House proposal seeking $77 million over two years.
Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, told the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee that public schools need much more money than what's been proposed to stay afloat while lawmakers draft a new school funding system.
''This is not a wish list, but a reasonable request for immediate relief,'' he said.
The Legislature has until October to meet a state Supreme Court order declaring the current school funding system inadequate and unconstitutional. While lawmakers have started the overhaul process this session, many believe it could take a year or more to complete.
Copps said many schools can't wait that long for more money, especially after more than a decade of drops in state aid.
''That's a long time away,'' he said. ''Our school districts cannot wait until 2007. They need substantial relief now.''
Gillan's bill calls for increasing per-student funding by $55 million in fiscal year 2006 and by $90 million in fiscal year 2007. Both figures include $23 million over the biennium for the Indian Education for All Act, a 1999 law requiring all public school students to learn about American Indian heritage and culture. It's never been sufficiently funded, Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, told the committee.
Schweitzer, however, has proposed just $2 million for the act. The difference in price tags, combined with a pending budget that's at least $60 million over state spending caps, will likely make Gillan's bill a tough sell.
But Helena schools chief Bruce Messinger and other superintendents said it's the only way to prevent more program cuts. Messinger said he may still have to cut up to $1.5 million in programs if the governor's $80 million funding proposal is approved. Schools in Billings could experience more than $1 million in cuts, including the closure of the district's career center, Superintendent Rod Svee said.
''Spending caps cannot be an excuse for ignoring the court decision and spending inadequate funding for our schools,'' Copps said in response to questions over the bill's hefty price tag.
No one spoke in opposition to the bill. The committee took no immediate action.
The bill is Senate Bill 341.