Faced with a roughly $450,000 shortfall, Libby School District Superintendent K. W. Maki made a tough call last summer when he recommended the school board cut 10 staff positions. His district has been scraping by financially for years, and is dangerously close to experiencing serious accreditation issues. The student population has dwindled from 2,000 to around 1,200 in the past 13 years, Maki says, and Libby is poised to make more drastic changes as it braces for another potential $450,000 hit by the end of the school year.
"We're looking, either at the end of this year or the end of next, at closing the elementary school," Maki says. "We'd move kindergarten through third grade to the middle school and move seventh and eighth grade to the high school. That's a financial thing, and something we pretty much have to do."
Growing concerns regarding the stability of public education funding in Montana have prompted a redoubling of efforts on the part of the Montana Quality Education Coalition (MQEC), a conglomerate of school districts and educational organizations dedicated to ensuring the quality education mandated by the Montana Constitution. MQEC Executive Director Mark Lambrecht plans to lobby the Montana Legislature hard in the coming weeks in hopes of establishing a permanent, reliable funding source for the school systems like Libby's that are working with ever-tightening budgets.
"We've seen health insurance premium increases ranging from 15 to 65 percent around the state, we've seen almost in every school district certain numbers of teachers that are not being rehired," Lambrecht says. "We've seen financial shortfalls affecting the ability of those schools to provide the best education they can for students."
The problems in public school funding statewide this year can largely be attributed to a massive stimulus shortfall carried over from the previous biennium. Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Montana legislators balanced school budgets in 2009 using one-time-use federal stimulus dollars to provide a slight increase and make up for the diversion of school trust land revenues—namely the $81 million lease of Otter Creek coal tracts—to the state's general budget. With those stimulus dollars no longer available, districts will now require a 2 percent bump just to reach previous budget levels.
"What's happened with school funding is it used to be based upon a stable source of revenue, and now it's been cobbled together at the end of legislative sessions with one-time-only funds," says Pat McHugh, director of business services for Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS). "The federal funds that the state got—this Education Jobs Act—they're using it to fund education and pulling those funds that were set aside for education back into the state general fund."
McHugh adds that MCPS—which has not renewed its $4,000 membership with MQEC—has largely managed to avoid cutting staff; most reductions have come from travel, textbook and supply expenses. The district will likely look to those areas for any necessary cuts this year, but with potential shortfalls of nearly $400,000 in elementary education and $300,000 in secondary in the coming year, "we don't have a lot of places to go other than positions and people, and that's really not good," McHugh says.
Schweitzer did address the need for additional public education funding in a budget proposal in mid-November, but groups like the Montana School Boards Association loudly criticized Schweitzer's recommendation that funding be balanced with oil and natural gas revenues from districts in eastern Montana.
In response to the problems threatening districts like Libby and Missoula, MQEC has developed a new grassroots strategic action plan. Lambrecht, a former regulatory affairs manager and lobbyist for PPL Montana with two kids in the Helena school system, spent the past year traveling to school districts from Troy to Plevna hosting public discussions with school boards, teachers, parents and business owners about their districts' financial situations. His goal has been two-fold: Gather facts from different communities about their schools' specific needs, and encourage citizens to contact their legislators directly to voice their concerns.
"If we can work with the governor and the Legislature and develop a permanent, reliable, predictable funding system that these school districts can count on from year to year, then I think we'll have done our job," Lambrecht says.
If MQEC and the state fail to reach such an agreement, Lambrecht is prepared to drop a bill reestablishing a direct "pipeline" of funding from school trust lands to school coffers. A last-ditch effort for MQEC could be a lawsuit against the state similar to that which prompted a legislative rewrite of the school funding formula in 2005. However, Lambrecht says MQEC would prefer to reach a resolution out of court.
Meanwhile, district leaders in Libby are exploring any alternatives to cutting additional educators in 2011. Lincoln County voters will decide in a special election later this month whether to allow the school board to issue and sell building bonds to raise the necessary $12 million for renovations to the town's middle and high schools. Libby isn't the only district in northwestern Montana—nor the state—eyeing plans for continued downsizing.
"I think everybody's planning to cut," Maki says. "Shortfall in budgets, that's pretty much what I hear from all of them."