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School funding proposal needs more work, says Maki

| November 22, 2005 11:00 PM

A proposed revamp of Montana's school funding formula that stalled before a legislative panel last week needs more work before it can be a long-term solution to the problems facing the state's educational system, according to Libby school superintendent Kirby Maki.

Maki attended a meeting of the Quality Schools Interim Committee in Helena on Friday, along with other educators from around the state, to offer testimony on the proposal. The general consensus in educational circles is that the plan is flawed in several areas, Maki said.

"Not to necessarily throw it out, but it needs more work," Maki said.

The committee was formed last spring following a state Supreme Court ruling that the current school funding system is inadequate. On Friday, the committee was unable to agree on the current proposal, splitting 4-4 on party lines, Maki said. Another meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5. If the committee endorses a proposal likely to be approved by the full Legislature, Gov. Brian Schweitzer plans to call a special session.

In the current plan, there are "winners and losers based on property taxes," Maki said. Some districts would see the local tax burden increase, while others — including Libby — would see a decrease. Under the current plan, Libby's levy would go down by 47 mills.

The problem with the plan is that according to the Supreme Court's decision, there aren't supposed to be winners and losers, Maki said. The plan still places too much reliance on local levies, and there aren't any guarantees that the state would be able to fund its share in a few years, he said.

"In four or five years, we'd be worse off than we were before," he said.

The committee wasn't able to provide any good answers as to why local taxes would go up in some districts and down in others or provide assurances on long-term funding, Maki said.

"When you have a plan, you should be able to answer all the questions," he said.

The plan could also require some schools to cut staff and force some smaller districts to consolidate with other districts, Maki said.

Overall, the plan would result in an increase in educational funding from $810.7 million to $902.5 million. The state's share would increase from 60 percent to 66 percent.

Maki and other educators are backing an alternate plan proposed by the Montana Quality Education Alliance. Both plans would result in similar funding increases — Libby's funding would increase around $750,000 to $1 million under either plan — but the alliance's plan is simpler and more easily understood, Maki said. With schools looking ahead to the next budget year, Maki and other educators recommended to the committee that it adopt the coalition's proposal as a basis for a short-term fix while continuing to work on its own long-term solution.

"I don't know that they listened," Maki said.