HELENA (AP) - A legislative committee working on a new school funding formula wants more people and more time to develop the plan.
The four-member committee approved a proposal Monday that would add four members to the committee and authorize it to spend $200,000 to work through the summer and fall to come up with a replacement for the existing funding formula, which was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
The committee, made up of four representatives and four senators, equally divided by party, will have a report on its preliminary findings and recommendations by Oct. 1. The Supreme Court gave the Legislature until that date to come up with a fix.
Representatives from the state Office of Public Instruction, the governor's office and the Board of Public Education and legislative staff will aid the eight-member panel.
A majority of the Legislature now must approve the proposal and timetable, which calls for the plan to be presented to the full Legislature by Dec. 1. A special legislative session would follow for lawmakers to approve the plan.
Legislative staffers are in the process of drafting a bill that will soon be introduced into the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
''What is important is that we have a new funding formula in place so school districts can plan for their 2006-2007 school year,'' said Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, which organized the plaintiffs in the school funding lawsuit.
''I think it's a good starting point,'' said Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, a member of the panel.
If created, the funding committee will likely hire professional consultants this summer to study Montana's educational needs. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have long said the state must know what its needs are before it can construct a funding formula to address those needs.
''That's a critical first piece,'' Copps said.
Once the state's educational needs have been assessed, the committee will determine the state's total education costs. While the new funding formula must be based on the state's needs, it must also allow schools to meet the state's new definition of quality schools.
Under that definition, schools must abide by the existing school accreditation standards, offer equal opportunity to special needs and gifted students and implement programs that teach students about Montana's American Indians.
Funding must also take into consideration building maintenance, transportation needs and schools' ability to attract and retain qualified teachers and staff.