A foot in both camps 

With the Montana Quality Education Coalition taking the state back to court Feb. 5 seeking additional school funding, Doug Cordier finds himself in a privileged position to survey the ongoing tussle over education spending in Montana from both sides of the argument.

As Columbia Falls’ newly-elected Democratic member of the state House of Representatives in 2007, Cordier helped last year’s Legislature increase school funding by 7.3 percent and tack on one-time funding of $42.5 million for programs like full-time kindergarten and Indian Education for All.

Cordier has also worked for the Columbia Falls School District for the past 27 years, most recently as a high school counselor. Coincidentally, his school district initiated the 2004 legal action that forced the recent Legislature’s dramatic boost in education spending.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has tried to discourage the Quality Education Coalition from pressing its case, but Cordier disagrees. He was there in the 1990s, when times were really bad for the Columbia Falls school district.

“I can remember those years when our school board was having to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our budget to try to balance things up,” he says. “We’d cut things like librarians, we’d cut staff, maintenance.”

Those sacrifices put the schools in such a deep hole that they’re still digging out, Cordier says, and the school district still needs more money. He predicts the district will once again cut back on services and personnel this year in order to make its budget. He also anticipates the district will likely do away with all-day kindergarten, just one year after starting it with the money from the 2007 legislature.

The Quality Education Coalition has not yet put a price tag on its latest demands. Even so, Cordier, who plans to run for reelection this fall, says he supports the suit as a means of trying to get adequate funding for Montana districts facing budget shortfalls.

“Certainly, I’ll do all I can to try to encourage legislators on both sides of the aisle to take a look at increasing funds,” he says. But ultimately, Cordier says, the state’s policy will likely be dictated by the outcome in court.
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