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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bill may give school districts more funding options

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

With Glendive’s schools facing a laundry list of infrastructure issues and Dawson County’s rural schools facing ever-tightening budgets, especially with the sharp decline in oil and gas tax revenues, a bill making its way through the Montana Legislature may help local school districts buttress their bottom line, though local superintendents are unsure just how much help it would ultimately be.

SB 307, introduced in late February by perennial education legislation sponsor Sen. Llew Jones, would, according to its short title, “revise school funding laws to address facilities.” The bill has already sailed through the Senate, gaining final passage in that body by a vote of 49-1, and is now awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee.

The primary thing SB 307 would do, according to Dawson County Superintendent of Schools Steve Engebretson, is give school districts the authority to run up to a 10 mill permissive levy to raise funds for school facility repairs. A ‘permissive levy’ is a mill levy that a local government body can legally institute of its own volition, without approval by voters.

“It creates a subaccount that allows school boards to adopt 10 mills permissively without a vote for the purpose of facility repairs,” Engebretson said. “What it does is create another permissive levy, and I guess that’s good or bad depending on your perspective.”

However, SB 307 is a very dense piece of legislation, and what exactly it would do or exactly how much money it would allow local school district to raise for facility repairs with a permissive mill levy is not entirely clear. 

Glendive Public Schools Superintendent Ross Farber said, for instance, whether that 10 mill permissive levy included in the bill would be based on public schools’ standard funding formula or be a straight 10 mills is unclear to him. If it was based on the school funding formula, Farber said the high school district, for instance, could raise about $51,000 a year. A straight 10-mill levy would raise considerably more, as the most recent value of a county mill was over $24,000.

“We’re not sure how that works yet,” Farber said of the new permissive levy contained in SB 307.

The only permissive mill levies that GPS currently runs are for employee retirement and transportation, Farber added.

Engebretson said while he is intrigued by the idea of an additional permissive levy for school facility upgrades, he is concerned that it ultimately wouldn’t give local school districts the purchasing power they really need to make a difference.

“The problem of it is, 10 mills isn’t really enough to fix a boiler or replace a roof,” he said.

Engebretson said he would like to see legislators consider amending the bill to allow school districts to build up their building reserve accounts over several years. At present, school districts only have a finite amount of time to spend the money in their building reserve accounts. Farber noted GPS must spend down its building reserve account within 18 months of the receipt of revenue.

“I don’t see a mechanism in here to build that (building reserve) fund up, and most school districts aren’t going to be able to get enough money to do a lot,” Engebretson said.

Overall, however, Engebretson sounded a note of cautious support for SB 307, though he is not enamored of everything in it. He is particularly concerned about a provision in the bill which would require school boards to pass a resolution declaring their intent to run the permissive levies by April of each year, complete with public legal notices about how much the levy will cost local property owners based on the value of their homes. 

Engebretson said while he applauds the attempt to increase transparency to the public, the timing is nonsensical to him, since school districts generally do not know how much funding they are going to get from the state until later in the summer, nor does the state have up-to-date taxable values for property until early August.

“So the board’s going to have to pass a resolution guessing what the permissive levies are going to be and guessing what the taxable values are going to be,” Engebretson said. “So they’re doing all of this without any numbers at all and they’re just pulling them out of the air and guessing. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to create more transparency, but I’m afraid it’s going to cause more confusion.”

Farber is much more on the fence about how much good — or ill — SB 307 would do for his district. While he instructed Glendive Unified School Board members during a meeting last week to watch the bill closely since it may give the district some wiggle room to raise more money for facility repairs, he said at this point, there are too many unknowns with it for him to outright say he supports it.

“I’m on the fence because I don’t know exactly how (SB 307) would benefit the district,” he said.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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