By Freddy Monares and Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen urged lawmakers in her State of Education address last week to do what is right by the students of Montana.
And that, she said, means her office – which accounts for about 40 percent of the state’s general fund – needs stable funding.
The Joint Subcommittee on Education and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock have proposed cuts of more than $20 million to Arntzen’s office. OPI’s proposal, which she submitted to the subcommittee last week, includes a significantly smaller, $3 million cut.
“The budget that I have offered is fiscally responsible and funds Montana’s obligations to our public schools,” Arntzen said.
Bullock’s budget proposal calls for eliminating several state payments to OPI, like those from the Natural Resources Development fund – something Arntzen wants reinstated. She said without that funding, roughly $11.4 million will be placed on local property taxpayers.
“Our budget, the Office of Public Instruction’s budget, resists this tax burden to our local taxpayers,” Arntzen said.
House Minority Whip Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, released a statement via email in response to the speech, saying he hopes Arntzen will consider families’ needs for programs when addressing the issues facing Montana’s public schools.
“I’m disappointed that Superintendent Arntzen’s speech ignored the needs of families who traveled from across the state to the Capitol to advocate for adequate funding for special education, career and technical programs,” Schreiner said, “as well as funding so that schools don’t have to turn students away when they are unable to graduate on time due to disability or family circumstances.”
Another funding source in HB 191
Arntzen thanked the House of Representatives in her speech, specifically Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, for the unanimous passage of House Bill 191, which would increase funding for grades K-12 based on inflation.
“The passage of this provides stability as our next year school budgets are being formulated for our future students that are sitting in our classrooms in your communities,” Arntzen said.
Berglee said the state budget is a major issue this legislative session and the committee he chairs, the House Education Committee, has to be particular about the bills they send along. The committee holds bills based on their priority and the resources the general fund will provide.
“That’s important to remember when we’re talking about these individual programs, even special education,” Berglee said. “I would love to be able to fund (Career Technical Education), special ed and a lot of these programs, but I don’t know if we’re going to have the money necessary to do that,” Berglee said
Given the budget shortfalls the state is facing, the committee is trying to be strategic about the bills they pass, Berglee said.
Berglee said he expects to hear some good testimony on Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy’s House Bill 376, which would establish a public charter school system in the state. He said it’s a topic that often gets a lot of opposition, as well as support.
“I think it’s a choice Montanans should have because it’s their kids,” Berglee said. “The government is doing its best to present a free and quality education for everybody, and I think it should be up to the people of Montana what that looks like.”
He says the committee has recently seen alternatives to the classic classroom setting – like career technical education and vo-tech programs, in which students are learning to work with their hands and apply skills outside of the classroom.
“Seeing stuff like that in school is pretty cool and it seems to really increase the attendance rates. The dropout rates seem to be much lower with those programs,” Berglee said.
On the Senate side, the Senate Education Committee is also considering incentives for teachers.
Retired Sen. Mary Moe, D-Great Falls, introduced Senate Bill 115, which would add incentives for teachers who are certified by a national board. Moe introduced the bill before leaving her post Friday. She resigned to help her daughter, who recently gave birth to triplets.
Moe said she introduced the bill because the School Funding Commission during the last interim session found that Montana has trouble recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.
Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, is the chair of the Senate committee and said teachers provided with incentives are exceptional, bring more to the classroom, and can get paid for that training.
“Now there’s no money to pay for that, but we’re putting in place the process so that if we can ever find some, these teachers could get a $3,000 stipend,” Salomon said.
In considering these proposals, the issue for lawmakers always comes back to funding. Arntzen’s proposed budget also requests to reinstate a $6.3 million Data for Achievement payment.
Arntzen asked lawmakers to have the budget request on the governor’s desk before the end of February.
Freddy Monares and Cole Grant are reporters with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.