Not tardy yet 

Some deadlines are squishier than others. Though the Oct. 1 deadline set by the Montana Supreme Court for revamping the funding of the state’s public education system has come and gone, progress has been made and a solution is in sight, says Rep. Monica Lindeen, chairwoman of the Quality Schools Interim Committee charged with hashing out a new funding formula.

On Tuesday, Gov. Brian Schweitzer cautioned that he’ll call a special session to vote on a new plan only if he’s convinced there’s a consensus. Otherwise, he says, the matter will wait until the Legislature’s 2007 regular session.

“I’m not going to call a special session so they can come in and talk about it,” he says.

But Lindeen, D-Huntley, and Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who’s also on the committee, say they believe most of the work is done, and indications from the bipartisan committee are good.

On Sept. 30, the committee voted 6-1 to endorse an additional state payment of $4,000 per classroom, an integral part of the new funding formula, which is based on the number of classrooms rather than the number of students. Lindeen says that’s an important change, because though student numbers may fluctuate, the bottom lines of teacher salaries and school operations aren’t as flexible. The committee also approved $25 million for building maintenance and increased state support for school employee health-insurance plans. Remaining details will hopefully be settled during a few more meetings, the first of which is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Jim Molloy, attorney for the school districts that successfully argued state funding for education is inadequate, says his clients are counting on a solution in the next few months. While he doesn’t have a hard deadline in mind, he says it’s important that “meaningful relief” be provided by the time school districts begin budgeting for the 2006-07 school year, or early 2006.

“We’re interested in working with the state, but clearly, waiting until 2007 is not a viable option from our standpoint,” Molloy says.

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