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MT Republicans lay out plan for approving public school funding increase

HELENA – State Republicans laid out their plan Thursday to quickly approve an inflationary increase to public school funding in Montana.

Legislative leaders and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen held a news conference at the Montana State Capitol in support of House Bill 159.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Grubbs (R-Bozeman) would increase basic entitlement funding for school districts by 0.91% for the 2019-20 school year and 1.83% for the 2020-21 school year. That figure is based on inflation factors, as outlined in state law.

“This will help fulfill our promise to give all of our students a quality education, which is in the Montana Constitution,” said Grubbs.

Leaders said their goal is to pass the inflationary increase as soon as possible, so districts won’t have to wait to see if it’s approved.

“It’s been a priority of ours to get this out of committee as quickly as possible, get it out to our local school boards – they’re using this to set their budgets,” said Rep. Seth Berglee (R-Joliet) chair of the House Education Committee.

“In previous sessions, it’s kind of become a political football, but we’ve made it a priority this session to keep politics out of it as much as possible and make sure that our local schools are taken care of.”

Berglee said the committee could take action on the bill on Friday.

Arntzen said she’s hopeful HB 159 will reach Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk by the transmittal break, in the first week of March.

“How important this is – that our legislators, that our governor understands that schools are not political, that schools are full of opportunities for our most important students,” she said.

Republican leaders said they’re optimistic Bullock, a Democrat, will sign the bill. Bullock’s office released a statement on HB 159 Thursday.

“Gov. Bullock appreciates that Republican legislators are committed to education for our kids and to the inflationary adjustment for K-12 funding,” said Ronja Abel, Bullock’s communications director.

“The bill is certainly a start, but it doesn’t go far enough in ensuring that we continue to make targeted investments in educational opportunities for Montana’s kids and in strengthening our workforce.”

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner (D-Great Falls) is carrying an alternate education bill, supported by the governor.

House Bill 225 includes the same inflationary increase, but it also allows districts to receive up to one-half ANB funding if they offer preschool, creates a permanent inflationary adjustment for special education funding, and provides money for a program to help rural districts attract and retain teachers.

-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News

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