Diminishing Dollars

State funding reductions impacting local schools
By: 
Mikaela Koski

During the latest state legislative session, the Montana Legislature made funding cuts to a variety of state departments and programs, including education. As local schools prepare for next school year, the effects of the funding reductions will be felt.

THE REDUCTIONS

In total, approximately $42.5 million has been cut from the state education budget over the next two fiscal years. Next school year (2018-2019), reductions of about $11.8 million will go into effect. That total more than doubles to $30.7 million in reductions the following year (2019-2020), according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI).

The cuts include a reduction of approximately $1.7 million each year to the transportation fund. This is money that is used to transport kids to school.

In the 2019-2020 school year, several block grants will be completely eliminated from that year forward, totaling a reduction of about $11.6 million. The block grants help off-set costs for programs such as transportation and retirement. Some block grants can be used with more flexibility to cover costs related to technology or school buildings, for example.

According to OPI, the elimination of the county retirement block grant and the county transportation block grant will cause “the county mills [to] likely increase to cover this decreased revenue.”

House District 57 Representative Republican Forrest Mandeville, a representative of Stillwater County, said that school funding has always been a top priority for members on both sides of the aisle during his two legislative terms.

“My understanding in talking with some of the members of the appropriation committee is that the way funding was being calculated in the program was no longer working the way it was designed; some schools were being over-funded relative to other schools which were not getting the funds they needed,” he explained.

He also noted that, “to offset the impact of losing this funding source, an additional permissive levy was allowed to school districts. Permissive levies do not require approval from voters, but the intention was to allow local control in the decision making.”

The law also provides for the transferring of funds to cover some of the reductions, but the ability of schools to weather the funding reductions varies greatly.

Three local schools are handling the reductions in separate ways.

PARK CITY

The schools in Park City are currently operating on a portion of their possible budgets. According to Park City Superintendent Dan Grabowska, “Our high school is only operating at 81 percent of what the state says is our maximum budget, while our elementary is at 83 percent of maximum.”

Because Park City has not used its entire budget, it is possible for the district to ask for a general fund levy. The money is used to increase the school’s operational budget, and can be used to add or retain teaching positions or programs, or for building maintenance, among other possibilities.

On top of the statewide funding reductions, the Park City schools have recently had to absorb budget decreases from the state – last year, the elementary budget decreased by $30,000, and this year, the budget decreased $50,000. Grabowska explained that the budgets decreased due to a recent dip in student population in the last several years.

However, the student population is now increasing, but the schools must function within the smaller budget. Funding is set on a three year average, so the Park City schools will not see a budget increase for a year or two that will match the student increase.

The school district has attempted to save money by cutting teaching positions by not filling positions following a teacher’s retirement. That is becoming impossible, though, Grabowska said, because any additional cuts will increase class sizes, and that may have an adverse impact on student learning.

In addition, the district has lost teachers for both foreign language and business classes. Grabowska noted that at least one of the programs must be returned for students to be fully prepared for post-secondary school.

“After carefully weighing its options, our trustees recently approved a taxpayer request for a $50,000 levy in both the elementary and high school districts,” Grabowska explained. “It would increase elementary mills by 11.75 mills and the high school by 11.78 mills.

That equates to $15.86 on a $100,000 home in the elementary or $31.72 on a $200,000 home in the elementary and $15.90 on a $100,000 home or $31.80 on a $200,000 home in the high school district.”

The levy is a general fund levy, so it would be permanent. Park City voters have a say in the levy, and a walk-in election is being held to approve or deny the levy along with the trustee election on Tuesday, May 8 in the Park City multipurpose room from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.

ABSAROKEE

Absarokee Superintendent Dustin Sturm addressed the funding reductions in two newsletters at the beginning of the current school year. In September, he noted that Absarokee is “receiving $27,529.72 less from State Aid and $233,458.20 less in State Block Grant money.”

He noted that “the administration and the board have taken steps this fall to keep our budget similar to that of the previous year in an effort to keep your taxes from increasing.”

Changing the staff structure was mentioned as one potential solution to help offset an increase in taxes.

Absarokee will be holding a special mill levy election on May 8 from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Absarokee Elementary gym and the Roscoe Community Center.

The additional levy is for the amount of $21,613.55, approximately 3.12 mills, and is needed to “operate and maintain the elementary school for the 2018-2019 school year,” according to a legal notice from the school.

COLUMBUS

The Columbus School District will be able to weather the reductions due to the foresight of the administration and the board of trustees.

According to Superintendent Jeff Bermes, last year the Columbus board was able to create a rainy day fund to attempt to off-set the reductions they could tell were imminent.

That by no means indicates that the reductions have no affect on Columbus schools – it simply means there will be no special levy this year. Despite a significant increase in student numbers in the high school, the Columbus budget is smaller than last year.

When the combined block grant is eliminated in 2019, the Columbus School District (elementary and high school together) will lose approximately $25,000.

Bermes said the schools will attempt to watch spending without harming educational opportunities for the students. The school is committed to keep levy levels as constant as possible because Bermes feels the school “owes that to the community,” especially with an elementary school building project on the horizon

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