Republicans pursuing alternate school funding plan

2011-02-17T21:52:00Z 2011-02-18T06:50:19Z Republicans pursuing alternate school funding planBy MIKE DENNISON - Ravalli Republic State Bureau Ravalli Republic

HELENA - Legislative Republicans have killed Gov. Brian Schweitzer's funding plan for public schools, including its proposal to redistribute some school districts' oil-and-gas revenue statewide, and are working on an alternative plan.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who's been leading efforts to formulate the GOP alternative, said Thursday it also will use money from the oil-and-gas school districts, but not as much as Schweitzer's plan.

"The basis of the bill is the concept of ‘take some, leave some, '" he said, referring to the oil-and-gas money that goes to about 30 percent of school districts statewide.

The bill also will have some restrictions on how school districts receiving oil-and-gas revenue can spend the money, he said.

On Wednesday evening, the House Education Committee voted along party lines, with Republicans in favor, to kill House Bill 136, which contains Schweitzer's public school-funding plan. Republicans have an 11-5 majority on the panel.

Jones said he expects a bill or bills containing the Republican plan to be introduced in three or four weeks.

Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said Thursday that majority Republicans consider funding of public schools a priority, and will be presenting their plan once lawmakers return from a mid-session break at the end of February.

He said Republicans want to "maintain educational excellence," while ensuring that state funding for schools is sustainable. He also said some of the oil-and-gas money that has been flowing in large amounts to some districts will be redistributed to all schools.

"No one wants to punish oil-and-gas schools, but there are some issues that need to be addressed," Peterson said. "There is some extra money sitting out there that is not educating kids."

 

Schweitzer's plan would increase state funding slightly for public schools over the next two years, but its most controversial element was taking 90 percent of oil-and-gas product tax revenue that currently goes to 130 school districts - $76 million over two years - and redistributing it statewide to all schools.

A handful of school districts - primarily in far eastern Montana - get millions of dollars in oil-and-gas revenue, have large financial reserves and levy zero or very few local property tax mills to support their schools.

Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, who chairs the House Education Committee, said members felt that the Schweitzer administration made little or no effort to work with oil-and-gas school districts before proposing the substantial money transfer.

"If you're going to work with people, it's better to reach out and say, ‘Hey, how do we make this right?' " he said.

Dan Villa, the governor's education policy adviser, said Thursday that Republicans in budget committees have voted to cut $41 million in spending from Schweitzer's school-funding proposal.

"It's not a surprise that they killed our bill," he said. "There seems to be a lot of interest in letting those rich districts stay rich."

Jones said the GOP school-funding plan will limit the amount of oil-and-gas revenue going to districts to 100 percent of their respective general fund budget, up to $1.25 million, and then allow them to keep 50 percent of any oil-and-gas revenue over that amount.

The plan also will include some version of "merit pay" for teachers and schools, offering some sort of bonus or higher pay for those whose students perform above the norm or show great improvement, Jones said.

Jones said he's been working closely with school districts and other interested parties.

"I figured the more people I can have involved in the formative stage, the more likely they'll see that it's viable in the end," he said. "The education package will be in flux until the (final days) of the Legislature. It seems like everybody has to have their say before education makes it all the way through."

 

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