By Ron VandenBoom
Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch said she sees 10 years of budget cuts as backing K-12 education against the wall a situation where students will no longer be shielded from the consequences of less funding.
"We're at a fork in the road as far as the quality of our education goes," McCulloch said during a recent interview. "So far we've been able to shield the children from the cuts. But starting this year, I don't believe we will any longer be able to shield them."
McCulloch predicts that larger classes, fewer teachers, fewer programs, and consolidation and unification will result if adequate funding is not forthcoming from the 57th Legislature. She also predicts that accreditation could also be jeopardized in many schools because they will no longer be able to meet minimum standards.
"I don't see any way around it," she said.
Consolidation particularly can be destructive to many smaller communities, McCulloch said, adding that for many communities the schools are their hub providing everything from band concerts to basketball and football games.
"Those are the things that our communities love and that's frankly what they think they pay their tax dollars for," she said.
HB-121, the only remaining vehicle for funding Montana's schools for the next two years, originally provided for no additional increases in funding for the first year of the biennium and a 3 percent, or $13 million increase for the second year.
The legislature has been struggling to come up with ways of adding funding, but a tight budget and party differences have yet to strike an agreement on how funding can be added or what new revenue sources should be used.
The budget crunch is not an artificial situation, McCulloch said, sayinng she believes that the vast majority of legislators truly want to be kind to education.
"But the fact is, and we hear it a lot again, that there is no money," she said.
It's a situation she said has come about over the last 10 years. Cutbacks of $50 million 1993 and a zero increase in 1995 started the trend, she said. The legislature in 1997 only increased funding by 1 percent each year.
The 1999 legislature finally brought funding back up to the 1993 level, she said, but still did not bring it up to the 70 percent parity level schools enjoyed prior to 1993.
"Now it's, where else do you cut,'" she said.
McCulloch said school closures are being talked about in Missoula, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, and nearly every major community in Montana. But in many communities, they only have one grade school and one high school.
"There's no give and take about closing a school," she said. "Now it's what program are they going to eliminate..."
McCulloch also blames part of the problem on what she says are $450 million in tax cuts over the last four years that are no longer pumping money into state coffers.
"Instead of funding schools we tried this economic development plan based upon giving tax cuts to large businesses and we've eroded our tax base," she said.
It's a plan that she acknowledges would have been fine if economic development had occurred. But now, when coupled with energy deregulation, the tax base has been eroded and economic development does not look promising for the future.
Schools too have been forced to deal with rising energy prices due to deregulation a crisis that has seen their utility bill three or four times.
"That's something no one projected five years ago," McCulloch said. "... And the schools have no idea how to handle that. There's nothing they can control in that situation."
According to McCulloch, deregulation has already led to several hundred layoffs in the private sector and as many as 350 are predicted in the public. She throws into the mix 400-500 teachers if HB-121 passes in its original form.
"These are folks that are not going to be paying taxes here, not going to be buying groceries here, and not going to buy homes here," she said. "That's a huge financial loss to everyone."
A loss that in turn will mean fewer taxes collected to help finance education in two years.
McCulloch has some hope education will get a boost from three pieces of legislation currently under consideration. One is HB-625, requested by McCulloch and the Office of Public Instruction and introduced by Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre.
HB-625 would create a study commission that would, over the biennium, investigate reorganization, teacher cuts, and school funding formulas that would work toward making school funding more adequate and fair. The bill recently had its $50,000 price tag stripped away, but McCulloch said she is hopeful that the money will be reinstated and the bill passed.
"I would think $50,000 is a small price to pay to see if we're doing it accurately," she said.
SB-493 and SB-495, would increase funding to the schools by using a percentage of the funds from state trust lands (Legacy Trust) to invest in the stock market and by purchasing mineral rights from the Legacy Trust that could be used for schools.