By Tim Leeds
Actions in the legislative special session have delayed the Havre school board's vote on the school district's final budget.
"This will be the shortest final budget request I've ever made in my 19 years here," district clerk Ric Floren said at the board's meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The meeting was scheduled to continue at 12:15 p.m. Aug. 22, after the state Office of Public Instruction enters the effects of the Legislature's cuts to K-12 education spending into its computerized budgeting system.
An analysis released by state Superintendent of Schools Linda McColluch reports that funding for public schools was reduced by $5.96 million.
Gov. Judy Martz called the special session to eliminate a projected $56 million deficit in the state budget.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said the effects of the cuts is expected to be available on OPI's computer system by Friday. Then the district staff will compute the exact impact the cuts will have on the Havre district budget and present that to the school board on Aug. 22.
"That scenario is being replicated in 400 and some school districts across the state," said Miller, who is also chairman of the state Board of Education.
School boards are required by state law to hold their final budget meeting by Aug. 15, but are allowed to continue the meeting until the fourth Monday in August at the latest.
One of the cuts the Legislature made in the special session was to grants set up by the 2001 Legislature to reimburse school districts for money lost because of state tax cuts.
"The dollars that were to be reimbursed were taken away," Miller said.
Another area cut was the flex fund set up by the 2001 Legislature, which could not be used until the coming school year. The fund would have provided money to all districts to be used in a variety of specific areas.
That fund was essentially the increase in school funding approved by the Legislature, Miller said.
The district is not willing to estimate how Havre schools will be affected until OPI's analysis is available, Miller said.
"It certainly will have an impact," he said after the meeting.
The district anticipates it can continue without cutting classes or teachers for the coming year, Miller said.
"We're planning to move forward with all programs and staffing in place," he said.
The cuts in school funding came after two studies of public school funding were conducted in the last year. A council commissioned by Martz made eight recommendations in December for changing the way schools are funded to provide better and more equitable funding.
The results of another study, commissioned by a group including the Montana School Boards Association, the Montana Rural Education Association, the Montana Association of County School Superintendents, and the Montana Quality Education Coalition, were released Aug. 2.
That study was designed to determine the funding needed to produce an "adequate education," based on current performance in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and new federal requirements. The study's results said the state needs to increase funding, possibly by as much as $170 million a year, just to provide a basic, adequate education.
Havre board chairman Steve Heberly told school board members that the budget reductions and delays would never work in private business.
"Something's got to change. We can't continue like this. We can't even set our final budget because we don't know how much money we're going to get," he said.
Continuing to cut funding to public education gives the wrong impression to Montanans, Miller said.
"We're continually sending the message that our kids' education is not the number one priority in the state," he said.
The state needs to let people know that spending money on education is important, he said.
"I believe we can do that if we all work together, but it will take a lot of voices," Miller said.
The preliminary budget approved by the board in June includes about $6.1 million in the general fund for the elementary district and about $3.9 million in the general fund for the high school district.