Education issues face session scrutiny

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Public schools could face an impressive variety of issues in the 2011 Legislative session, from tweaking education funding to raising the legal dropout age to ending teacher tenure.

For now, most of those issues exist as draft requests, but a handful already are bills. More likely will follow as the 62nd Montana Legislature convenes on Monday.

Funding is one of the biggest issues local schools face in the upcoming biennium. Kalispell Public Schools, the county’s largest district, anticipates at least a half-million-dollar shortfall in 2011-12.

That deficit is based on the budget Gov. Brian Schweitzer presented in November and is subject to change at lawmakers’ hands.

The governor has proposed using oil-and-gas money to fund education statewide, a move that schools in Eastern Montana, which have used those dollars to supplement their own budgets, oppose.

But other funding options are on the table.

One draft bill, proposed by Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, calls for a uniform property-tax mill levy across the state. Doing so would increase property taxes in some areas, particularly in Eastern Montana, and would lessen the burden in other areas such as the Flathead.

The bill has the support of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, a nonprofit organization best known for its role in a lawsuit against the state over education funding. In recent months, the coalition has shifted its focus to advocacy and lobbying for K-12 education statewide.

The group’s members include school districts of all sizes from all over Montana, as well as several education-related organizations.

Although a uniform mill levy might not be popular with some Eastern Montana members, it’s the option the coalition will support this session, executive director Mark Lambrecht told the Kalispell school board recently.

“It would equalize the playing field for taxpayers throughout the state of Montana. ... We think that’s an appropriate way to go,” he said.

Another funding-related bill draft, which Lambrecht said he wrote last spring, would redirect money from state school trust lands to schools. That includes money from timber lands and Otter Creek coal land.

But funding isn’t the only issue that could impact schools this session. One bill that will go before the Legislature would raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, has the backing of Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. She told the governor recently that many students who drop out of school at age 16 do so because they know they can.

“It would raise the expectation that we expect every student to graduate,” Juneau said.

According to her office, more than three-quarters of the inmates in the prison system are high school dropouts.

The bill has one potential catch: Fiscal analysts have put the bill’s price tag at $1 million to pay for the more than 1,000 students who could stay in school.

One bill draft could remove some teachers from schools.

Rep.-elect Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, wants to eliminate teacher tenure. He told the Whitefish Pilot that he would like the word “tenure” removed from state law for all government officials.

Tenure only makes it more difficult to fire teachers, Skees said.

Skees has also said he favors consolidating school districts. The issue of forced consolidation received some attention earlier this year, and Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state public employees union, came out in favor of a bill that would merge Montana’s 85 smallest elementary districts with larger districts.

But the draft, which called for elementary districts that are not attached to high school districts and have 25 or fewer students to merge with elementary districts that are connected to high schools, probably is dead. The draft was canceled Dec. 2.

Education-related issues kick off before the Legislature early in the session. A budget hearing before the Joint Subcommittee on Education is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday. The hearing will be available online at leg.mt.gov/css/default.asp.

The Whitefish Pilot and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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