Beat the clock 

Time slipping on school funding solution

The state Legislature’s Quality Schools Interim Committee (QSIC), which is dedicated to resolving Montana’s school funding quandary, has been going at it for months now, wrestling with a variety of options for meeting constitutionally mandated requirements on a host of educational issues. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has steadfastly refused to enter the fray, although he has been repeatedly beseeched to exert leadership on what many see as the single most serious issue facing the state. One thing seems certain—as time ticks away, the committee and the governor are playing Beat the Clock with their chances of resolving the issue through a special legislative session this year, and the stakes of the game couldn’t be higher.

While the highly complex issue has received significant coverage in the press, a quick overview may be useful in bringing readers up to speed on where the process now stands. Simply put, the Montana Constitution requires that the state provide a “quality education” for all Montanans. Although the specific definition of “quality education” has been the crux of almost endless debate, there is general agreement that fund-shifting under 16 years of Republican governors and legislatures has skewed the school-funding formula, placing more burden on local taxpayers and less on the state’s budget.

Unfortunately, the result of such funding shifts is that so-called “poor” school districts are less likely to pass levies and provide additional funding for education than wealthier districts. It doesn’t take a lot of research to see that areas of significant growth, high employment and booming economies, such as those in Montana’s western valleys, are far more capable of supporting additional taxation for schools than sparsely populated, economically depressed areas that are experiencing significant out-migration, such as the dwindling towns of eastern Montana.

Last year, in a lawsuit brought by the Montana Quality Education Coalition, the courts ruled that this inequality runs counter to Article X of the Constitution, which reads: “Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.” In other words, the state must provide quality education for all Montanans, regardless of where they live, what kind of local economy they have, or how many people go to their schools. The court told the state to retool its funding scheme to meet that constitutional mandate.

Similarly, the state has basically been ignoring the constitutional requirement that our schools provide curricula on the cultural heritage of American Indians. Again, the courts were plain in their ruling that the state must develop and implement American Indian curricula to meet this requirement. During the 2005 session, the Legislature took the first steps toward this goal by providing preliminary funding for what is now being called Indian Education For All. Everyone, however, realizes that much more needs to be done, and this, too, is part of the problem with which the interim education committee is wrestling.

Just this week, however, things began to get a lot more interesting. Jim Molloy, the attorney for the Quality Education Coalition, wrote Attorney General Mike McGrath to outline the Coalition’s concerns with the lack of progress made by the committee and the governor. “It is now a month since the October 1 deadline for compliance with the Courts’ decisions,” wrote Molloy. “As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear the QSIC faces many serious issues and challenges in its efforts to formulate an entirely new distribution formula.”

Molloy then goes on to write: “The Governor and his representatives to the QSIC consistently state that there will be no special session unless the Committee completes its work with a result that is satisfactory to him, and that is guaranteed passage in a special session. Now, however, it appears the Legislature may not convene in special session.” That approach “is not acceptable, and clearly does not comply with the Courts’ decisions,” according to Molloy, because: “The Legislature, presumably in consultation with the governor’s office, intentionally did not appropriate adequate additional revenues for the second year of the biennium,” and “educators and trustees in large and small districts throughout the State now face the prospect of again being forced to find ways to cut costs and services for students, in order to make ends meet for the next school year.”

The letter asks the state for “an official commitment that the Legislature will be convened in special session by no later than December 31, 2005.” The Coalition flexes its considerable legal muscle with Molloy’s request for state action “by November 14,” saying: “Without a commitment that assures timely legislative action, we have no choice but to return to Court, and seek supplemental relief.” Molloy then adds: “To be sure, this is not our preferred course of action…we are prepared to seek common ground with the Governor and Legislature, if only we are given an opportunity to do so.”

Considering its prior legal victories, Attorney General McGrath and Gov. Schweitzer will likely take Molloy’s threat to “return to Court” seriously. The interim committee must also know that a court-ordered solution will provide far less flexibility than one engineered by the Legislature and governor.

But the clock is ticking. By the time this column hits print, Schweitzer will have a mere 10 days left in which to make the decision to call a special session. Having avoided that decision like the plague for months, the governor will now either have to move forward, with or without full legislative concurrence, or face the grim possibility of facing—and funding—court-ordered educational relief.

For those who feel the governor had previously committed to a special session on educational funding, prevarication won’t cut it. They are not interested in assigning blame—they are only interested in getting the problem solved. And now, so it would appear, it all boils down to a grim game of Beat the Clock.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent.Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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