Legislature seen as a mixed bag for Havre schools


Reduced state funding because of declining enrollment will mean less funding for some programs, but programs at Havre Public Schools likely won't be eliminated and no jobs will be lost, the Havre superintendent said Tuesday.

However, the state Legislature's decisions could affect school property tax rates in 2004.

Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller and Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell presented their initial analyses of the Legislature's education funding decisions in interviews on Tuesday.

The cuts are not as bad as they could have been as a result of a bill passed at the end of the legislative session, Miller said.

An 83-student enrollment reduction in grades K-8 in Havre will mean a loss of about $283,676 from the general fund budget in 2003-2004. That is about $60,000 less than it would have been without the 1.1 percent school funding increase included in Senate Bill 424, which passed on Saturday evening, Miller said.

"The Legislature could have helped this a great deal more by having a bigger increase than 1.1 percent," he said.

That is less than the 2 percent increase that Gov. Judy Martz had proposed, which would would have meant a cut of $234,000 for Havre.

The increase goes up to about 2 percent in the 2004-2005 school year.

Miller said the cuts will probably mean less funding for some programs, but that he did not believe any programs would have to be cut altogether, or that any jobs would be lost.

"We have no plans to cut people," he said.

Miller said the school board is well-equipped to prioritize and deal with the cuts when the budgeting process starts in May.

For Havre High School, "The picture is a bit brighter," Miller said, thanks to an increase of 13 students. That will mean an increase of about $90,357 to the high school district's $3.9 million general fund budget.

The general fund budget includes wages, books, supplies and heating, but not items like food service and transportation.

One of the most contentious issues of the legislative session, a change that requires school districts to use federal funds to pay for benefits for federally paid school employees instead of drawing from county benefits pools, will have less effect on Havre than it will on larger districts that have many federal employees, Miller said.

Havre's small number of federal employees, such as special education paraprofessionals, means it will only lose about $38,000 in 2004-2005, Miller said. That is because the district will have to use federal funds to pay for the benefits, which otherwise would have been spent on programs.

Isbell said the cost of the benefits policy change could be more than that, because some Havre Public School administrators whose salaries are partially paid with federal funds could also be required to withdraw from the county benefits fund.

Because school budgets are planned before funding levels are certain, school officials prepare spending lists - for everything from curriculum to supplies to personnel - that project different spending levels depending on whether the budget comes in at 95, 98 or 100 percent of the previous year's budget.

This year the schools will probably get between 95 and 98 percent of last year's budget, Miller said, but that is not unusual.

"It's been been this way every year that I've been here," he said, adding that enrollment is 24 percent lower than when he first moved here in 1996.

Nor is Havre alone. Miller said the changes are part of economic trends across the Hi-Line.

He said Havre is effective at dealing with the trend.

"It's not fun and I'd like it to be different but we feel that we're using taxpayer dollars in the most efficient manner to provide programming for kids," he said, adding that the cuts have lead to great support by the community through mill levies.

There is no general mill levy on the ballot for this year's trustee election on May 6, Miller said. There are, however, two building reserve measures on the ballot, one for the heating and ventilation system at Lincoln-McKinley Primary School, and one for three building projects at the high school and Blue Pony Stadium.

The total increase, if it is approved by the voters, Miller said, would be $35,000 for the elementary reserve and $20,000 for the high school reserve.

"That's a very minimal tax impact," Miller said, in a district with a taxable value of $20 million.

It is not yet certain how the Legislature's decisions will affect school funding at the county level.

Isbell said she has just received the figures and that they would take a while to figure out, but that her first impression was that some things may have been underfunded.

Of concern, she said, is transportation, the retirement budget, and the individual schools' budgets.

Senate Bill 424 cuts in half a grant for district transportation, and eliminates a block grant for the county retirement fund and one for the debt service fund, according to a memo e-mailed to Isbell from the state Office of Public Instruction on Monday.

"The districts are mandated to fund certain things, and it looks like they haven't been funded to meet those mandates," she said. "It doesn't seem like the Legislature made many concessions for public education."

Isbell pointed out that the 1.1 percent basic entitlement increase is very small and will probably not meet rising costs of utilities, gas, supplies, and salaries.

She said she will not know how the changes will affect the county budget until she gets budget numbers from all the school districts.

"The impact of this bill will not be felt until the following school year," Isbell said.

Any increase in the countywide mill levy resulting from this legislative session will not affect taxpayers until the fall of 2004, she said.

School funding may look better in 2005.

Miller said one of the positive achievements of this year's Legislature was House Bill 736, which creates a state commission to look at education funding and make recommendations to the 2005 Legislature.

The committee will include a designee of the governor and several state education officials, the president of the Senate and other state officials, as well as up to 15 to 25 more experts.

"That's the hope we have for the next session," Miller said. "When you put the president of the Senate on an interim committee, you're likely to get something done."


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