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Gazette opinion: Why talk about school levies in March?

March 2, 2017 GMT

Two months from today, Montana public school districts will be tallying votes in annual trustee and levy elections. If school districts want to ask their voters for money to run schools next year, they must hold the election on May 2.

That’s why Billings trustees have been talking about operating levies since before Christmas. With the 2017 legislative session half over, local school leaders don’t yet know what the state contribution to funding will be for the next two years. But money is tight and education leaders worry that lawmakers may still make cuts.

So far, the only education funding signed into law provides a 0.5 percent inflationary increase for the upcoming academic year and 1.87 percent for the next year. But with the complex Montana funding formula, an overall increase doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in support for each school district.

The Legislative Fiscal Division has a handy guide that describes the building blocks of Montana K-12 funding. The biggest block is called “average number belonging,” which is a per pupil payment based on enrollment counts taken in the fall and winter.

The ANB funding amount depends on whether the student is in elementary, middle or high school. The formula pays a set amount for the first student and then decreases that payment for each subsequent student down to a certain level. The effect of those “decrements” is that schools with lots of students get less money per student.

According to Billings Public Schools, the decrement reduces funding for our students by more than $6 million annually. That’s how much more the state formula would allow for educating our students if they attended the smallest school districts.

The next big block of the funding formula is called the basic entitlement. The basic entitlement is the same for each elementary district regardless of how many students there are. Likewise, each middle and high school district receives the same basic entitlement whether there are 50 students or 5,000.

The basic entitlement funds a district as if it is one school building. That is a challenge for Billings, which has about 16,000 students in 22 elementary, five middle and four high schools. The basic entitlement for a high school district is $305,370, which in Billings is split between Senior, West, Skyview and the Career Center.

With years of careful financial planning, Billings is set to open Ben Steele Middle School next August by adding just five new positions, Superintendent Terry Bouck said this week. Teaching positions now in sixth-grade elementary classrooms will transfer to sixth-grade middle school classrooms.

But the community and students have identified other needs that won’t be met without a voter-approved levy:

- Adding more dual credit and Advanced Placement courses in the high schools — courses proven to boost graduation rates, job skills and college success.

- Adding two elementary teachers for high-achieving learners (doubling the number of gifted classrooms in the district).

- Hiring a full time reading-math specialist in every K-5 school to assist struggling students. The district now has only a half-time reading specialist in each elementary school.

- Improving student mental health services with additional counselors to assist troubled students and prevent suicide.

- Expanding the hands-on science curriculum Project Lead the Way to all elementary and middle schools and to maintain the program with supplies.

In a lean budget year, the sky isn’t falling, but there is no money for improving the services listed above — unless Billings voters agree on May 2. Now is the time to get educated about your public school funding.