As House Education Committee members await the arrival of Senate Bill 175, school board members statewide gathered in Helena last week to put education on the forefront.
Among them was Culbertson trustee Paul Finnicum who also sits on the Montana School Boards Association board of directors. He was at the state capitol for a week as he testified in favor of bills that will help oil and gas impacted communities such as Culbertson. On one occasion, Finnicum joined other school board members from around the state to set up booths for each school size (C-AA), and discuss what each deals with. “It’s the first of its kind,” he said.
It’s all part of an effort to put schools out front and center during a critical year for funding. “Normally, the day of advocacy is in March, but the school board association thought it was important to get over earlier so schools can make an imprint on the legislative process,” he said. “Education is the last thing that gets dealt with, and we want to put it on the forefront.”
So far it’s worked. Education associations have become a powerful lobbying force, and it was on full display with SB 175, the all-in-one education funding package backed by associations and school districts alike. The bill passed the Senate and is on its way to a committee before it hits the House floor for passage. Within its 47 pages, SB 175 addresses the issues presented by school districts around the state during a two-year researching process. It lowers property taxes, addresses natural resource development impacts, basic entitlement, and adjustments for declining and ballooning enrollments.
Regional school administrators that have been keeping a close eye on the progress in Helena agree the bill has a good chance of passing since it addresses the needs of all schools regardless of size and location.
“I’m cautiously optimistic at this point,” says Tony Holecek, Westby superintendent of schools, who plans to testify in Helena.
Culbertson Superintendent of Schools Larry Crowder is trying to stay abreast of daily updates coming from the legislative session. “I think there’s a great hope to pass this with no problems,” he said, favoring the property tax relief element of the legislation. “It’s for all the schools.”
If the bill doesn’t pass, however, there are backup plans. In January, Rep. David Halvorson, R-Sidney, presented House Bills 176 and 177 to the House Education Committee without opposition. HB 176 increases the production taxes that schools can keep from 130 percent to 150 percent. HB 177 requires school districts to budget in 25 percent production taxes received by the district, rather than 55 percent. Bainville Superintendent of Schools Renee Rasmussen, citing impacts to her district and others like it, testified in favor. Finnicum said those would have support, provided the big one, SB 175, isn’t passed. “That’s the schools’ bill. That’s what we did,” he said. “It’s a great thing. I think there’s something in it for everybody.”