At Home Town Helena last Thursday our school district superintendent was in an interesting quandary. He was there to talk about a new plan which is going to cost the property owners of Helena a lot of money, (if he or the next superintendent can get the bond passed). He first had to explain why the number of elementary students in Helena is GOING DOWN. It's not real great to ask for support for going after more money when you actually have less students. His explanation as to why he has less students is that THE ECONOMY IS BAD in Helena and that people are having to leave town to find work. My, My, there is less money out there so we are just going to belly up to the bar and take the money we want right out of the back pockets of those poor suckers who are still able to make their house payments in Helena. Does this make sense to you? Does it feel like the people running the school district i.e. THE SCHOOL BOARD, really give a darn about the property tax payers? Did you know that business people who have businesses in Helena but live out of the school district don't even get to vote on these bonds- even though they have to pay for them? Does this sound fair to you?
See if this sounds fair to you. At the school board meeting Tuesday night there was a presentation from MQEC (Montana Quality Education Coalition). These are the folks who started a law suit against the legislature years ago to equalize funding for schools so that small school districts would have the same funding as large districts.They have sixty districts paying them dues and sent this gentleman out to get more. It came out at the meeting that there are 250 districts- so he has a ways to go. But yes, Helena is a member, of course. So, once again, the tax payers are being forced to pay to sue themselves! He lamented that they really only have enough money from the dues to pay his salary - not to fund the new lawsuit so he didn't say it surprisingly- but he expects money from the school district to pay legal expenses. I was wondering-why didn't he just ask for the money? Can they do this in a back room deal? I know they use the building reserve for all kinds of things like paying for a planning firm- can they just take money out of the budget? Maybe you're wondering what the new law suit is. Well, it's just an attachment to the old law suit as one of the board members explained to us. Here's how it goes. The legislature only gave the schools a 1% increase in their funding for the 1st year of the biennium and a 1.16% increase in the second year. According to MQEC this doesn't meet inflation needs which are specified in the annotated code (law). The law says that the legislature MUST give them more money every legislative session. Are you wondering who determines what this rate of inflation for the schools is? Well you probably guessed right- The MONTANA OFFICE OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION! Is this kind of like the fox in charge of the hen house? Can we expect the Office of Public Instruction to be an impartial judge when it comes to school funding?
I sat there at this meeting, the peon in front of the gods, and wondered what it must be like to be elected to the legislature. I thought about all these poor people getting out to vote for Republican legislators because they want a change, they want less government and less taxes. Does it seem to you that the legislators just have their hands tied? Carl Graham from Montana Policy Institute has been fighting for a long time for zero based budgeting. This would give the legislators a chance to look at real school budgets built for each year and to decide what we should fund instead of just being given a figure from last year with OPI's rate of inflation increase figured in. Let's get behind Carl . Let's make our vote really stand for something. With the "Whole Child " concept that our school district operates under our schools are the center for all social services- most of them duplicative. Our legislators are not just funding schools in the school budgets, they're funding non profits and social services. Our new bond plan is going to include all kinds of social programs, not just buildings.
So where is the public voice in all this spending? Our board chair is making phone calls, he's offering invites for the STEERING COMMITTEE and the CITIZENS' COMMITTEE which will be the public input on this new planning for the bond. In the newspaper it will look like everyone got a voice but - not so much. He's not publicizing the search (he says it has been mentioned in a newspaper article)- even a board member called foul on this - but they passed her right by like a post on the freeway. If you get on the committee you know already what the outcome will be - every program they've got going in the district, every federal grant and every nonprofit wish list. I really hope there's some one or two of you out there that will get on those committees. The board chair says to just call the district. You may not be able to make a change this time but you can stand for the property owners and families and get the word out. This board needs a balance!