Havre Daily News
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller on Wednesday sent a letter to the legislative committee charged with revising the state's school funding formula, asking it to reverse its course on several significant issues.
Miller said the work of the Quality Schools Interim Committee is losing support among the state's educators.
Other educators agree, saying the committee's proposal would underfund larger schools.
Miller's suggestions could cost the state between $50 million and $80 million more than the changes the committee has considered to date, he said Wednesday. As chair of the Montana Board of Public Education, Miller sits on the committee as a nonvoting member.
Rep. Monica Lindeen, D-Huntley, who chairs the Quality Schools Interim Committee, said Wednesday she disagrees that support for the committee is eroding, but said Miller's suggestions will be taken seriously.
“There are parts of the new formula that need work. There's no question,” Rep. Holly Raser, D-Missoula, said Wednesday after reading Miller's letter. “We on the committee fully understand that.”
The Quality Schools Interim Committee, with eight lawmaker members and two ex officio members, is charged with presenting a new funding formula to the Legislature. A year ago, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that Montana's school funding system is unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to fix it. The committee has met for months and last week asked the Montana Legislative Services Division to draft a bill based on its recommendations.
The committee will meet Nov. 18 to review the draft and, Miller hopes, incorporate a few significant changes.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said he will call a special session to vote on the bill only if the committee reaches a consensus soon.
The biggest problem with the proposal, Miller and other educators agree, is that it affects different districts in drastically different ways - increasing funding to one-room schoolhouses by as much as 300 percent, while doing nothing to help - or even cutting funding to - larger districts.
“The idea should be that the rising tide should lift all boats, not sink the big ones,” Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, said Wednesday. “I've said this twice ... I don't think we're ready for prime time.”
Lewis said he agrees with Miller's assessment of the problem and is open to considering Miller's main suggestion.
Miller's biggest complaint, he said, is that the committee underestimated the number of classrooms in Montana in its proposed funding formula.
The current formula allocates most of its funding on a per-student basis. The committee is considering a model that funds schools in nine different categories. About half of each school's funding would be allotted per classroom.
The committee chose a statistical model that sets the state's number of classrooms at 8,900. Montana has about 10,400 classrooms, Miller said, and educators agree that the state needs even more.
Miller said the committee arrived at that number of classrooms by using the state's accreditation standards as a guide, funding the staff and materials necessary to run an accredited school.
The standards say classrooms should have a maximum of 30 students, so the committee chose a model that took the state's number of students and divided by 30, with some adjustments for school size, Miller said.
The impact of the committee's decision could mean that a school that operates 10 classrooms is funded for eight, while a school that operates three classrooms is funded for five, Miller said.
The committee recently added $4,000 per classroom to raise teachers' salaries. Miller said he would support a smaller contribution if the committee increased the number of classrooms in the formula.
Miller is asking the committee to adopt a model suggested by Montana educators that recommends the state fund 11,000 classrooms. He said he's spoken to the committee in favor of that model about 20 times.
Miller said the 11,000 number was the result of a study three years ago that surveyed Montana teachers and officials at the school, district and state level. Those surveyed were asked about the resources needed to achieve the curriculum standards of the state Office of Public Instruction. The Quality Schools Interim Committee reviewed that study and an updated analysis of it, he said.
Committee member Rep. Bill Glaser, R-Huntley, said Wednesday he supports the 8,900 number because it's based on state standards and not the desires of local school boards.
“We're not talking about the number of classes a school board decided they needed, but a method to distribute the state's share of the money and make sure schools don't spend so much” because they can, Glaser said.
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Board Association, said school boards make the decisions they do for a reason.
“If you address those flaws in the way Kirk suggested in his letter, you might have the makings for a reasonable discussion,” Melton said.
Montana Quality Education Coalition executive director Jack Copps thinks the committee has gone about the entire process backward, echoing a concern in Miller's letter. MQEC helped bring the lawsuit, which led to the Montana Supreme Court ruling.
“I personally believe that the process is so flawed that it cannot be fixed without returning to step one and doing exactly what the Legislature says should be done,” Copps said.
Too many decisions have been made with cost in mind, he said.
“The obligation was to develop a formula that provided quality that was based on the assessment of educational needs, and they have simply ignored the assessment of educational needs,” Copps said. “Those education needs were replaced by financial concerns.”
Copps said Miller's opinions carry great weight, but the changes Miller suggested won't be enough to bring him on board.
Miller said he hopes his proposal will unify lawmakers and educators.
“If we're going to do the right things by the kids of Montana, I don't think it behooves us to all go our separate ways,” he said.
Lawmakers had a range of reactions to Miller's suggestion about using a different classroom count. Raser said the number the committee chose is conservative and that a different count could be phased in.
Three other committee member who could be reached for comment said they'd consider a higher number.
One suggestion raised the hackles of many committee members. Miller asked the committee to recommend a new funding source for education, naming sales tax as a possibility. In his letter, Miller said he had previously supported property tax equalization, but after the committee met last week, he realized Montanans would oppose it.
“Whatever our will is, it's not our task to develop a new taxation system,” Raser said. “We can make recommendations, certainly, but we could not impose a sales tax.”
Raser said she doesn't think the Legislature would support a sales tax. If one were to be implemented, it would probably have to come in the form of a ballot initiative, she added.
Lewis said he supports increasing state education spending, but would not support raising taxes or adopting a sales tax to do it. Glaser agreed.
A new classroom count alone would go a long way toward solving another problem, Miller said. The committee has said it supports requiring school districts to join the state employee health insurance plan, but there's a roughly $30 million disparity between what schools pay now for health insurance and the cost of joining the state pool, he said.
In the committee's formula, classroom allotments include the salaries and benefits for that classroom's teacher. Increasing the number of classrooms funded would help pay the benefits for more staff, closing the $30 million gap - though not completely, he said.
Miller also asked the committee to increase funding for Indian Education for All. The committee agreed on a $7 million one- time payment and $3 million annually. The annual funds are only $22 per student, and wouldn't pay for a textbook, Miller said. He asked the committee to include $100 per student, or $14 million annually.
The committee will meet Nov. 18 to review a draft of a bill. At that time, it will look at updated figures for the financial impact the plan would have on school districts.
Miller said he hasn't calculated the effect his suggestions would have on Havre Public School funding because he made his suggestion as a committee member, not as HPS superintendent. The committee's current proposal appears to have minimal impact on Havre's budget. It increases funding slightly for the Havre High School district but decreases it slightly for the elementary district.