Gazette agrees with us: SB 107 is a bad idea

MEA-MFT strongly opposes SB 107. So does the Billings Gazette. Read on. Then please get ready to help fight this bill in the House.

SB 107 passed the Senate with Billings senators Arntzen, Kary, Smith, and Webb all voting YES -- along with too many others with no constituents mired in the bill. 

Unfortunately, Senator Mary Caferro also voted YES, failing to represent her Helena constituents. Senators Dick Barrett, Jill Cohenour, Robyn Driscoll, Tom Facey, Christine Kaufmann, Cliff Larson, Sue Malek, Mary McNally, Diane Sands, and Cynthia Wolken – all of whom represent constituents in and around Billings, Helena, and Missoula respectively -- voted no. Good for them. 

Billings Gazette opinion: No choice in SB107 for 3 high school districts

March 4, 2015
 

If every high school district in Montana was as large as Billings, there would be only eight, instead of 160. [actually 170]
 

Montana’s public education system is designed to provide for small schools. It has always required large school districts to serve more children with less money per student.
 

On the high school level, Billings often loads 30 students into academic courses and has sometimes discontinued classes with fewer than 20 enrolled. Small schools struggle to hire all the teachers they need, but offer students more opportunity for individual attention in smaller classes.
 

The goal of Montana public schools must be a high quality education for every student in every school — large and small.
 

Yet Billings Republican senators voted for a bill that could raise school taxes for their constituents while reducing school resources, according to concerns raised with the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. Sens. Elsie Arntzen, Doug Kary, Cary Smith and Roger Webb voted to require their local high schools to give away a share of their “property, buildings, buses, machinery, textbooks, and computers and related equipment” and other assets.
 

Senate Bill 107 would allow elementary districts with at least 1,000 students to form their own high school district. The only districts meeting that standard are Lockwood, East Helena and Hellgate in Missoula.
 

The idea of giving those districts’ voters a choice seems simple enough. But in offering voters in those three districts a choice, SB107 takes away choice from voters in the existing high school districts of Billings, Helena and Missoula.
 

If SB107 becomes law as presently written, voters in Lockwood, East Helena and Hellgate, could at any time vote to create their own high school district. Such a vote would remove the new district from the existing one and trigger imposition of a “transition levy” on property in the new district. That levy would be used to pay tuition to the existing district for up to five years while the new district voters decided whether or not to build a high school.
 

However, SB107 doesn’t require a new high school district’s tuition to cover existing levies for such things as technology and maintenance – even though voters in the new district voted on those levies when they were part of the larger district, according to information financial officers in the Missoula and Helena school districts presented to the Senate committee.
 

SB107 attempts to address the issue of outstanding school bonds, but doesn’t provide a clear way to maintain the legal requirement that the property tax base responsible for issuing the bonds pay off the bonds.
 

The most troubling provision is the “equitable division of assets.” There isn’t a way to split such assets without diminishing educational opportunity for Billings students. Senior, West, Skyview and the Career Center would still be needed to educate the students who aren’t from Lockwood. Billings high schools don’t have the luxury of tablets or computers for each student. The schools have installed technology in buildings to upgrade Internet connections. There’s no equitable way to divide wires in walls.
 

Billings, Helena and Missoula voters would have:

- No voice in dividing their high school districts.
 

- No vote on whether to shoulder taxes that Lockwood, East Helena and Missoula could be freed from, if their voters decided to form their own districts.
 

- No choice on whether part of the buildings and technology in their local schools would be taken away from their students.
 

SB107 sponsor Sen. Taylor Brown, whose district includes Lockwood, is representing his constituents well.
 

We call on representatives whose constituents live in the rest of the Billings high school district to stand up for their students as Sens. Mary McNally and Robyn Driscoll did in voting against SB107.
 

As passed by the Senate, this bill isn’t in the best interest of Billings. Members of the House need to take a closer look at the costs and benefits. Their Billings constituents would have no choice under SB107.
 

 

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