Education budget funds more staff for new Heritage Center, ongoing language preservation

By: - March 22, 2023 8:16 pm

A chrome lithograph of the Montana Capitol in Helena (Library of Congress, Public Domain).

In the past, the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program didn’t have guaranteed funding, but it may have it soon.

Wednesday, the Montana House took up the big budget bill that covers state spending for the next two years, and Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said money for education includes paying for that program “on an ongoing basis.”

As the name suggests, the program’s goal is to preserve Native American languages traditionally spoken in Montana. Bedey said an interim budget committee proposed some restructuring that will ensure the program is effective.

He noted the Gianforte Administration supported ongoing funding as well.

“This … is an excellent move,” Bedey said.

Bedey presented that change as a highlight to the education portion of the budget bill, House Bill 2.

The House voted 68-32 to approve HB2 on party lines, with Republicans in support, and representatives will vote on it again Thursday and likely send it to the Senate.

In his overview, Bedey said education and related agencies will be funded at $3 billion altogether, including federal money. He said that’s 5.4% more than the last biennium.

Bedey served as chairperson of the education appropriations subcommittee, and he gave members of the House highlights and a recap of work.

Republicans hold a supermajority in the Montana Legislature, and Democrats proposed amendments during the hearing, but they failed.

For example, Democrats argued to “not bake” a $95 million inflation adjustment into the base budget to be absorbed into operations — “This is not chump change,” said Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre.

The minority also argued to add $600,000 to help low-income families whose children sometimes skip meals at school because they can’t afford the co-pays.

“We have hungry kids in our school seats. I see them. I work with them,” said Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena. She noted a “full belly is the best intervention” for learning.

But the amendments from Democrats failed on party-line votes.

The education agencies funded in HB2 include the Office of Public Instruction, the Commissioner of Higher Education, the School for the Deaf and the Blind, and the Montana Historical Society.

In his overview, Bedey highlighted an increase of roughly 24 employees for the Montana Historical Society, which will open its doors in its new home at the Heritage Center in Helena in 2025.

The Gianforte Administration had also recommended additional staffing for the new Heritage Center, Bedey said, but the subcommittee decided it made more sense to add roughly 12 staff the first year, and another 12 the second, instead of all staff in the first year.

He noted the total budget for the Montana Historical Society is $17.9 million for the next two years, including $7.8 million of general fund money. Their total employee count is 78 based on full-time hours.

As proposed, the Office of Public Instruction will be funded at $2.3 billion for the next two years, including federal money, or 4.9% more than the last two years, Bedey said. OPI houses the language preservation program.

Bedey said the total general fund amount is $1.1 billion, and while it looks like it’s a drop of $766 million from the previous two years, that decrease reflects a decision to move money from the property tax levy for schools to a separate account — one still part of HB2.

He said the Gianforte Administration had proposed moving those dollars out of the general fund, and committee members agreed with the idea. However, they wanted the legislature to “have ongoing visibility” over the money so plan to put it in a special revenue account that’s reflected in HB2.

(Conversely, he said it appears the legislature is spending that much more than the Governor’s Office proposed, but Bedey said the money is just in a different place.)

In another highlight, Bedey discussed the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind. The school supports free and comprehensive education for children who need its services from birth through the age of 21, proposing a total budget of $18.6 million, or 8% more than the last two years, Bedey said.

In the next two years, the school will add the equivalent of five full-time workers for a total of more than 88 employees, including a full-time maintenance supervisor, he said. Until now, he said the superintendent has had those responsibilities.

Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said more and more children are being identified earlier as being able to use the support, and she anticipates even more opportunities for the legislature to work with the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind in the future.

The Montana State Library programs offered a couple of other highlights Bedey shared.

He said the budget has money for local libraries to allow people to check out mobile “hotspots” so they have access to the internet. Stimulus money had paid for it in the last couple of years, but Bedey said those dollars have run out, and the state wants to keep it going at least for the time being.

“We would like to study just how effective this program is and how widely it is used,” he said.

In the past, Bedey said libraries may have been seen as buildings full of books, but now, they play a significant role in GIS information systems, natural resource information systems, and other databases critical to state operations.

In the next two years, the library is getting a one-time, $500,000 allocation for each fiscal year to start the “Montana Real Time Network,” which consists of satellite download stations across the state used for precision navigation, Bedey said.

In the future, subscribers will pay for it, he said, and they may include logistics and transportation companies or surveying operations, for example.

In higher education, Bedey said $2 million was allocated to help students get a degree more quickly and accumulate less college debt. He said the budget also recognizes that some expenses, like for a “precision agriculture” program and wool lab, are ongoing, not just one time only.

All told, the budget for the Commissioner’s Office of Higher Education was $629 million with all funds for the next two years, or 6.4% more than the previous two, he said, albeit less in general fund money.

Rep. Keogh, also on the education subcommittee, said legislators are hearing from people across the state about schools, especially following news stories about a recent tour by an elected official — it’s “March madness out there.”

The Lewistown News-Argus published a story this week covering one of the tour stops where community members expressed frustration with Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen.

In her introductory remarks, Keogh said she’s been getting questions including about teacher pay and retention and “overwhelming concern about charter schools.”

She said she hoped the legislature would continue to address concerns, including “keeping our public schools’ money in our public schools.”

“Let’s keep doing good work,” Keogh said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.