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Miller testifies about problems in school funding

HELENA - Money shortages make it increasingly difficult for Montana schools to meet accreditation standards and recruit teachers, a leader in Montana education said Wednesday at a trial examining state school support.

Twenty percent of schools were out of compliance with accreditation standards in 2002-03, up from about 4 percent 10 years ago, said Kirk Miller, chairman of the state Board of Public Education and superintendent of Havre Public Schools. Miller said schools lack the money to do what standards require.

A lawyer for the state, however, later suggested it was misleading to argue there has been a large increase in noncompliance, and to blame accreditation gaps on funding.

Miller testified on the second day of a District Court bench trial arising from a lawsuit by a coalition of education groups. Members of the coalition say state funding for schools is too low to give children the quality education guaranteed in the Montana Constitution.

The state provided about 72 percent of schools' money in 1991, but that support has fallen to 60 percent and schools are having to compromise on what they offer, says the Montana Quality Education Coalition. It wants District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to require that the Legislature determine what's needed for quality education, then pay for it. The trial could last three weeks.

Under questioning by the coalition's lawyer, Miller said some school districts struggling with inadequate support have had to pick the accreditation standards with which they'll comply and sideline others.

''I don't think that's what anybody in Montana would want to have happen for their children,'' Miller said. Many of the deficiencies involve not having staff with proper credentials, he said.

But State Solicitor Brian Morris suggested changes in how noncompliance is categorized account for some of the increase cited by Miller, and may make the violation rate seem high.

Morris suggested that core educational needs are addressed. He noted that many of the citations for lack of certified teachers involve art, music or counseling positions, often at rural schools.

Probably it is their remoteness that prevents some rural districts from attracting all the teachers they need, Miller said, but he added significant pay raises could help. Finding qualified teachers has become a major challenge for both rural and urban districts, he said.

Salaries are not competitive with those in other states, said Miller, who described conditions at the University of Montana's annual career fair for education graduates and prospective employers. The event now draws out-of-state school representatives trying to recruit freshly minted teachers.

''It's a little bit different when your booth is set up right next door to the Las Vegas district or to a Washington school district and they're offering $20 bills just for stopping by their booth, and they're offering $10,000 signing bonuses or enhanced benefit packages'' to Montana students, Miller said.

The average starting salary for a teacher in Montana last year was $23,062 and the average for all teachers in the state was $35,754, according to the MEA-MFT teachers union. Nationally, teachers received an average of $45,800.

Unable to compete financially, Montana schools must emphasize quality of life, stable communities and relatively small classes, but often those incentives are too little, Miller said. Last year his Havre district had five positions to fill and only eight applicants considered worth interviewing, he said.

Miller said the formula for allocating state money to schools, which also get federal and local dollars, worked upon its inception in 1993 but has not kept up with the times.

''The inflationary cost of what goes on with the rest of the world was not built into the formula,'' he said. Miller said schools face the certainty of more requirements for services to children, and more expense, as new federal rules for education take hold.


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