Education: Federal funds in detention 

Montana educators are upset that a chunk of federal money slated to save or create teaching jobs this academic year is instead being used to bolster the state’s general fund.

“Most of the schools across the state are very frustrated about how this is playing out,” says Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

Earlier this month state officials learned Montana was awarded $30.7 million in federal funding. The allocation comes from $10 billion being distributed to school districts across the country, and Montana’s two senators, Jon Tester and Max Baucus, called the portion a major victory for the state.

Yet, according to a Sept. 15 statement from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the money will not impact–at least for the immediate future– what was already allocated by the 2009 Montana Legislature.

“These federal monies will not provide any new resources to schools,” the statement says. “Instead, the Governor’s Office has directed that the federal monies will replace state general fund dollars.”

In 2009, federal stimulus funding enabled the Missoula School District to hire roughly 45 new teachers, according to Missoula Education Association President Dave Severson. That money is now running out, forcing administrators to begin trimming those jobs. Severson says the district cut roughly seven full-time positions last spring.

Even so, Severson says he’s cautiously optimistic that legislators during the upcoming session will keep K-12 education fiscally healthy, especially now that the funding pot includes $30.7 million that’s specifically slated for education.

“It’s not that I don’t feel the frustration, I do,” Severson says. “It’s just that there might be more to the story that plays out during the coming months.”

Dan Villa, education policy advisor for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, says Severson’s on the right track. Schweitzer will recommend the $30.7 million be used to fund education and specifically to prevent teacher layoffs.

“We are committed that in the next session we will propose that the $30.7 million will go to schools,” Villa says. “We have put historic investments into the K-12 system. And we will continue to do that.” In the meantime, Juneau will be tasked with pleading her case.

“There’s a $72 million hole stepping into the next session,” she says. “K-12 education needs to be made whole.”

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