Committee tables bills to fund special education in rural schools

January 12, 2017 GMT

The Republican dominated House Education Committee on Wednesday tabled three bills that would have funded special education in Montana’s rural school districts.

Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, asked Chair Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, to wait a few weeks until other bills provided a better look at what needs funding most. Berglee denied the request and moved forward with executive action.

All three bills were sponsored by Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings.

Special education services are mandated, meaning school districts don’t have a choice on whether to provide the services, even if they can’t afford it. The state requires school districts to make a 33 percent general fund match for special education dollars. Kelker said during the hearing that school districts are often left with a bill to pay, and on average make a 41 percent general fund match.

Funding for special education is based on an assumption that 10 percent of all students within a school district will need special education. For rural schools that don’t have very many special needs students, it isn’t sustainable to pay a full-time special needs staff.

To better use resources, rural schools created education cooperatives and pool their money to pay for specialized services. With a cooperative, one speech pathologist can be hired to travel to multiple rural school districts.

House Bill 32 would provide schools with the most money. The bill would have directed $5.7 million to special education and included an inflationary adjustment, as well as $2 million for education cooperatives.

HB 33 would provide $4 million in the next biennium to education cooperatives, and HB 31 would provide $2 million as an inflationary adjustment for the next biennium.

After HB 31 was tabled but before the committee voted on HB 33, Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said Republicans were tabling the bill due to pressure from the appropriations committee, which has repeatedly stressed a lean budget and initially proposed cuts of almost $24 million to the Office of Public Instruction.

“I would hope that we can pass this bill and if work needs to be done on the budgetary side, appropriations could do it,” he said. “I truly believe the role of the education committee is to vet policies for what they’re worth.”

Rep. Jeff Essman, R-Billings, said it was difficult for him to table the bills.

“There are a lot of aspects of the Montana state budget that do not address critical needs. This is one,” Essman said. “But we’re going to have to mind what those are so we can address these critical needs.”