Special Session cuts school transportation funding

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Lewistown School District Business Manager Rebekah explains the role budgeted funds, such as transportation, play in the district’s budget Wednesday morning at the Lincoln Building.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Last week’s special legislative session did not solve the budget crisis, but it did make several cuts trying. As a result, $13 million of school block grants were decreased or eliminated from the state budget, putting local schools in a tight spot.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Duane Ankney (R, Colstrip), eliminates schools districts’ combined fund and transportation fund block grants, as well as eliminating counties’ block grant reimbursements for countywide school transportation and countywide school retirement.

 

Block grant basics

School Finance Instructor Kara Sperle clarified what the term block grant meant.

“They’re state general fund moneys collected and sent to schools,” she said.

Sperle works for the Office of Public Instruction, the state agency that oversees public school districts. OPI released a six-page summary of the Special Session’s effects on schools this week. The breakdown showed SB2 affecting five different school block grants, and reducing OPI’s transportation appropriation, or funding, from the state.

Some changes will hit school districts’ overall budgets, but several specifically target transportation funds, leaving individual schools with less money to get kids to and from school.

 

The wheels on the bus

Sperle said SB2 will hit school transportation in several ways. One is the elimination of the transportation block grant, or the money schools receive from the state specifically for their budgets’ transportation fund.

The bill also lowers the amount of money going towards home-to-school student travel. Sperle explained the cost of getting students to and from school is traditionally split between the state and the county, each reimbursing the school 50 percent.

SB2 reduces the amount OPI, or the agency responsible for paying out the state’s half, receives for transportation. It also eliminates the countywide transportation block grant, or money counties receive to help them pay their half of the transportation cost.

“This reduction helps offset the cost counties have,” she said. “It’s another pot of money that goes to the county, and then goes to the schools for all pupil transportation.”

Counties and the state cover costs with payments instead of one lump sum. OPI’s six-page summary stated it was “highly likely” the agency would not be able to cover its half of transportation costs for the last half of the school year. It cited SB2’s reduction in OPI transportation funding.

This could leave Montana schools short this school year, as money built into budgets last summer fails to come in.

The Special Session bill limits how districts respond to the shortfall. They can move money within their budget to cover the missing funds, but they cannot increase permissive levies - or the ones not requiring voter approval.

SB2 decreased state funding for school transportation, and prevents schools from finding the money locally. School districts now must offer the same services with fewer resources.

 

Rural worry

In rural Montana, with students living across the countryside, that is a difficult prospect. Moore Public School Superintendent Denise Chrest watched the Special Session as it happened. Now, with its decisions being translated into impacts, she’s starting the search for solutions.

“It will affect us mainly in our transportation,” she said. “It depends on how that formula is going to look on that reimbursement from the county.”

Chrest relies heavily on the state and county’s 50-50 reimbursements for transportation, mainly because of rural Montana’s low population density.

“We have three bus routes, and we average right around 60-75 miles a day per route, morning and night together,” she said.

While the reimbursements help with daily bus routes, Moore Public School depended on the eliminated transportation block grant for vehicle maintenance. Not getting students to school, or back home, isn’t an option for Chrest. OPI’s probable payment failure for this year adds pressure to the solution search.

“Your general fund has to absorb it,” she said. “You don’t have a whole lot of options, but that money’s going to be cut from somewhere. Once you take it out of your general funds, something’s gotta give.”

Even that is difficult for Chrest. Most funds in a school budget receive money for a given purpose and can only be spent on specific items. She explained that precludes them from covering a shortfall.

Grass Range Schools Superintendent Joe Gaylord is also reevaluating his district’s budget, trying to crunch numbers for upcoming shortages.

“We’re looking at, and there may be some other ones, probably over $22,000 that we will probably just not get,” he said, referring to Grass Range Schools’ combined block grant.

Gaylord feels the school will be ok, at least this year.

“From our perspective, we’re sitting ok with our budget, but we’re sitting with full reserves,” he said. “But the full reserves are designed to help you do business as usual, not fill holes from cuts.”

There may be tough decision ahead for Gaylord, though.

“The choices you start making are when someone retires,” he said. “You make that decision, do you hire for that person?”

Right now, Gaylord is taking budget cuts one year at a time.

“The school’s been well-managed financially,” he said. “We will survive for a year or two, but what will they do in the next session?”

 

Expected hardship

The Lewistown School District is a little less rural, but faces the same budget problems. Business Manager Rebekah Rhoades wasn’t surprised by cuts.

“The Special Session was called to deal with state revenue shortages,” she said. “As a result, we knew they’d have to make cuts to the school districts.”

Despite foresight, the district is waiting to figure out where the shortfall will fit into its budget. It’s a difficult situation for Rhoades, who will deal directly with the Special Session’s fallout. She can relate to both the schools’ shrinking budgets and the legislature’s fight against increased taxes.

“I agonize over the budget every August, knowing the decisions I recommend to the Board have an affect on local taxes,” she said. “The fact that [the legislature] choose transportation was calculated, as was not affecting local taxpayers. They’re trying to keep a balance, but it’s getting very complicated.”

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