Montana ranks near the bottom nationally for the state's share of funding for school construction and repair — and education leaders say that has caused differences in the quality of education statewide that might run afoul of the law.
What's certain is that the lack of state funding has left some schools in disrepair for years, leading sewage to back up in hallways, snowpack to threaten roof collapses, and students to crowd too-small classrooms that don't meet accreditation standards. Advocates say that when the state doesn't pay its fair share, districts have turned to local residents, who increasingly are unwilling or unable to pay more taxes.
In the wake of an education lawsuit a decade ago, the legislature created two programs to help pay for facilities, but funding for both has not kept pace with growing needs, and the state predicts income for the programs will fall further. Additionally, the 2015 Legislature failed to fund one of them, killing grants to help 53 school districts.
"They've certainly made efforts to address building deficiencies, but it's not a very viable solution," said Dianne Burke, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, noting a 2008 state inventory that tallied $360 million in needed repairs. "When you're allocating $10 million a year, that's not really making too much progress. It would take you 36 years to catch up, not even thinking about inflation."
Many members of the School Funding Interim Commission, which will meet several times this year, have prioritized facilities assistance as a primary concern and plan to make recommendations to the 2017 legislature.
Chairman Sen. Tom Facey, D- Missoula, said two questions have been at the heart of the discussions so far: "Should the state be responsible for any part of school facilities? What should that commitment be?"
For decades, debates over public education have included concerns about physical buildings. Legally, many arguments that facilities are critical components of quality, equal education for all have roots in desegregation cases. In states across the country, education advocates have broadened and extended that thinking to highlight discrepancies between rich and poor or urban and rural communities. Increasingly, they note that wealthy communities have more local resources to spend on pricey capital projects, from science labs to soccer fields, while districts in poor and rural areas tend to have lower incomes and a smaller property tax base that make it difficult to grow revenue. As a result, they say states should step in to fill the gap and make sure children have the same educational opportunities regardless of their home zip code.
A national review of state-level litigation since 2001 found that about two-thirds of cases included "substantial facility claims," according to a 2016 update of a 2008 study commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers.
Other lawsuits have found the federal government has no clear requirement to pay for educational buildings, passing the bill to states and school districts. How the two governments split that responsibility varies depending on legislative reform efforts, state constitutional promises and related court rulings. In turn, that has led to a wide differences in funding commitments.
From 2005 to 2008, Montana paid 11 percent of school districts' total capital outlay for construction or renovation of existing facilities, ranking the state 32nd nationally, according to an analysis of state and federal school finance data by the 21st Century School Fund and National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. That state spending averages out to $545 per student per year for a ranking of 42nd in the nation. The national average is double that and the regional, 12-state average is even higher: $1,316 per student per year.
The regional average state share of facilities funding is higher than the national average in large part because rulings in some of those states placed a larger proportion of the funding responsibility on state leaders. For instance, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled the state must fund nearly all construction and maintenance to ensure adequate and equitable education, although the program now faces serious deficits as revenues from mineral leases plummet.
Montana's Constitution includes a promise to "fund and distribute in an equitable manner the state's share of the cost" to provide "a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools." In 1989, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that facilities and debt service for capital projects are included in that responsibility. Other rulings in 2003 and 2005 found that Montana did not adequately or equitably fund schools, including facilities. Recognizing the significant associated costs and limited resources of state government, the judge said the state could not reasonably address hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged maintenance all at once but instead must make steady progress to catch up.
In a special session on school funding, legislators passed a bill to conduct a condition assessment and energy audit of every school building in the state. In early 2008, dozens of inspectors were trained on a facilities inventory tool pioneered by Montana State University and completed on-site inspections of 2,195 structures, including track sheds, bus barns and educational buildings.
"These small districts did not appear to us to be in any worse physical condition, nor did they have worse adequacy issues than larger districts," said Scott Rose, the consult from Portland-based DLR Group that led the assessment. "Montana was kind of behind the curve, but not unlike a lot of schools across the country."
The assessment concluded it would cost about $360 million to bring all buildings up to the codes in place at the time of their construction and into "good condition." Later analyses by nonprofits and advocacy groups put the figure closer to $1 billion, given the additional costs associated with bringing old structures up to modern codes and accreditation standards. Additionally, the report did not include costs for new construction needed to address enrollment growth.
In a September letter to the school commission, Nick Salmon, a facility planner with CTA Group in Missoula, said his firm conducted detailed energy audits and facility assessments for 20 school districts of varying sizes in 2009, finding that the state's assessment generally "underestimated the deficiencies in facilities by about 20 percent and underestimated the replacement cost by about 30 percent."
"Some communities have made significant investments in school facilities in the last eight years, while others have struggled to pass a pond or building reserve," he wrote.
The state never conducted a follow-up review of its 2008 assessment to evaluate how districts used the information, nor is there an updated estimate of building deficiency costs since the state does not track that information as some states do. Education advocates and some legislators assume limited progress has been made overall because of how little the state contributes compared to rising inflation and a perceived growing list of needs.
Following the statewide assessment, the Legislature created two K-12 facilities programs: one to help fund critical projects and another to pay for a portion of debt from new construction.
Since the 2011 biennium, the Quality Schools Grant Program has awarded $33 million for 93 projects in 33 counties, ranging from the construction of a physical education facility in Red Lodge to removing asbestos-laden tiles from a Missoula elementary school. Another 234 applications for more than $136 million in requests did not rank high enough to be awarded or were unfunded in the 2015 session.
The bulk of the grants are awarded on a competitive basis with public health and safety projects receiving a scoring advantage over applications seeking to address deferred maintenance, accreditation standards, energy efficiency, technology or enhanced educational opportunities. The program also issues grants to assist with planning costs and to make emergency repairs such as decontaminating a well with high arsenic levels that provided water to a Lake County elementary school.
"It just barely touches the surfaces," Facey said of the grant program's ability to make a dent in facilities needs statewide. "Some schools didn't like it because it's not dependable. Some small districts did not like it because they didn't have good grant writers and weren't getting equal access to that money."
Program administrator Kelly Lynch said she offers feedback to all denied applicants and several, including some small districts, have returned with stronger applications that were approved for funding in the next cycle.
Meanwhile, property tax collections by school districts have more than doubled since 1991, sometimes maxing out state caps on levies and leaving little local appetite to support more debt.
A second state program is designed to help districts who qualify with debt service payments. But as communities have approved more debt, the state has not increased funding proportionally, resulting in payments that are a fraction of what qualifying schools are supposed to receive. Many districts do not include the state payments in budgeting or bond proposals because they say they cannot rely on it.
On top of that, the account that funds both state school facilities programs has seen revenues dwindle as commodity prices fall and after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling killed collections from some riverbed permits.
Rep. Jeff Essman, a Billings Republican who sits on the school funding commission, said that carving out funding for facilities will be one of the group's biggest challenges and will require deciding how to prioritize schools among other state commitments.
"We can't do everything, so what's most important?" he said. "There's going to be lots of hollering and crying, but I don't see how we avoid it honestly."
Burke said any solution to facilities funding must be considered in the context of broader school funding and budget regulations. She hopes the commission continues the "great progress" made by state leaders after court rulings forced action.
"But the state is still not paying its share," she said. "So really we didn't do what we set out to do."