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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Schools Prepare For $19 Million Funding Cut

Funding for public education in Montana will decrease by about $19 million over the next two years, as declines in state revenues mean across-the-board budget reductions to state agencies.

More than $97 million in state budget reductions are scheduled to kick in August 15, and, across the state,, school districts are preparing to adapt to their share of the cut.

Funding for public education in Montana will decrease by about $19 million over the next two years as declines in state revenues mean across-the-board budget reductions to state agencies.

That means as the school year begins, educators are planning to cut back on classroom supplies, field trips, funding for substitute teachers and para-educators, and dip into funding reserves.

Inside the Helena Public School District building, Superintendent Jack Copps sits at a oval conference table in his office. Helena schools, among the larger districts in the state, are expecting their budget to be reduced by about half a million dollars for the upcoming school year.

Each district across the state is taking on some of the burden of the anticipated $19 million reductions to public education funding.

Superintendent Copps says this hit to education funding comes when at a time some school districts are already in a tight spot with money.

“We’re cut to what we would consider the absolute minimum level of professional staff that should be available in schools. We don’t have teaching positions we can cut.”

Copps says saving money by getting rid of staff isn’t an option, because doing that would push the school above what accreditations standards require for student-teacher ratios. So, to save money this year, elementary schools in Helena won’t be getting their scheduled update to science curriculum.

“Because of the cutbacks we are not going to be able to do that.”

Copps says the district tries to update parts of curriculum every seven years. And because science materials are getting pushed back this year, that means updates to math, social studies and other courses will get pushed back by at least a year too.

Districts across Montana must find ways to educate and run schools with less funding because of a new law passed by lawmakers, and signed by the governor during the legislative session.

That law, sometimes referred to as the Budget Stabilization Bill, aims to protect the state from falling into a deep financial crisis, by making phased cuts to state spending if revenue declines.

The plan was to have four  phased cuts, with each kicking in for every $12 million revenues fell below the adopted state budget.  

The deepest level of statewide cuts would be triggered if revenues were greater than $36 million below expectations.

In July, Governor Steve Bullock announced revenues were down more than $70 million.

Rodney Simpson is a superintendent for schools in Deer Lodge, a K-8 district with about 430 students. He says the they’ll have to cut back on general supplies and maintenance.

“I don’t want to say it doesn’t hurt, but it’s something that we’re able to do without impacting students.”

Simpson says a big reason schools in his district won’t feel as big of a budget pinch as some others will is because in May, local taxpayers in Deer Lodge approved a levy to send more local money to the schools.

“Without that, we would be laying off a teacher, or two.”

He says he’s seeing a trend in recent years of public schools having to rely more on local taxes because of fewer dollars coming in from the state and federal government.

Districts are having to lean more on local funding, because, although they’ll be getting less state funding in specific areas, like in special education, schools still must meet federal requirements to provide those services. 

The Corvallis School District, about medium size for the state, where Tim Johnson is the superintendent, is relying on a reserve fund the district has in place help the school manage its expected reductions. But he says, that’s not a long term fix. 

“Our response in this district regarding our funding cut is focused on the reserve to not have to affect any of our programs or teaching at this time. Now, if something else happens this year or something happens next year, I might not able to say that.”

Johnson says it makes sense that state leaders need to trim down spending because of revenue declines, but he doesn't want policy makers to lose sight of the importance giving schools the funding they need. It’s an investment he says, although a costly one. 

Local school districts will be sending their budgets into state education officials later this month, shortly after budget reductions are adopted August 15.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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