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Bill seeks to offset declining school enrollment

| February 21, 2005 11:00 PM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Two bills introduced during this session of the Legislature would give financial help to school districts such as Libby's that are losing enrollment. Senate Bill 177, introduced by Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, would allow districts to average their enrollment over a three-year period rather than just the current year. The legislation would take effect in 2006. Language of the bill stipulates that state per-pupil funding would be calculated for whichever period generated the largest amount of money for the district. In addition, SB 177 originally called for a $250-per-student increase in state funding beginning next year, but that dollar amount was stricken in the legislation that passed the Senate 40-10 on Feb. 16 and was sent to the House. Meanwhile, House Bill 111 creates a new funding mechanism to bolster school districts with declining enrollment. It would give districts $1,000 per educator on staff with local school boards to decide how the money could best be used. Linda McCulloch, superintendent of the Montana Office of Public Instruction, applauded the bill introduced by Rep. Gary Branae, D-Billings. "HB 111 recognizes that with the decrease of a few students in a school, the school still needs to provide third grade, fourth grade, and so on, and needs to offer music, PE, library, and still needs to turn on the heat and lights but now has significantly less funding," McCulloch said. The bill had a hearing before the House Education Committee on Jan. 10, but had not advanced beyond the committee as of Monday. Libby School District Superintendent Kirby Maki said both bills have the potential to benefit Libby, but the real question is whether the added money they provide would come at the expense of per-pupil funding. "They only have so much money," he said. "How will they divvy it out? If the bills are in addition to other funding it would be good for us. If it was subtracted from that, they wouldn't make much difference." SB 177 has potential to help local schools because the enrollment decline was greater in past years than it is this year, Maki said. He noted that district enrollment is now 61 students below the same period a year ago. That compares with a decline of 177 students from 2003 to 2004. "If you take that average over three years, that would make a big difference for us," Maki said. "It would be significant." This year's enrollment decline is anticipated to cost Libby School District about $300,000 in state funding next year, although the Legislature has a long way to go before final numbers are set. That figure does not include additional funding Libby would receive should either SB 177 or HB 111 become law. Maki told the school board this month that the 2005 enrollment dip was anticipated. The state allocates funding based on the number of students attending each district.