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Montana School Chief, Governor's Panel Support Redistribution of Funds Among School Districts

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Montana would impose a uniform statewide property-tax rate, limit the amount that school districts could spend, and redistribute excess revenues from wealthy to poor communities, under plans proposed by a governor's advisory panel and the state school chief.

The plans, however, differ on two key questions--whether property taxes should continue to be collected at the local level or by the state, and whether elementary- and high-school districts should be forced to merge.

The recommendations were the first of several that are being prepared in the wake of a state judge's ruling last January that the current school-finance system is unconstitutional and should be replaced by lawmakers during their 1989 session.

State Distribution Plan

The task force appointed by Gov. Ted Schwinden recommended that nearly all county school levies be eliminated and replaced with a 140-mill tax that would be collected by the state and redistributed to districts, said David Hunter, the state's budget director and chairman of the advisory group.

The panel also said that the new tax system could work only if elementary districts were required to merge with high-school districts. That recommendation4was harshly criticized by many of those who attended a Sept. 25 public hearing on the plan.

Mr. Hunter said he would forward the council's recommendations to the Governor last week.

He also said he doubted that State Superintendent Ed Argenbright's recommendation would work because it does not address the consolidation issue. The state currently has 548 districts.

Local Alternative

Mr. Argenbright recommended last month that the state adopt a uniform statewide 110-mill property-tax rate. According to Ray Shackleford, the deputy state superintendent, counties would continue to be responsible for collecting the funds; amounts collected in excess of state-imposed budget limits would be sent to the state for redistribution to property-poor districts.

Mr. Shackleford insisted that the superintendent's plan would work without forcing the unification of districts. "If the consolida8tion efforts occurred, there would be little difference in the distribution of funds," he said.

According to state officials, Mr. Argenbright's plan would generate $220 million in new education revenues and the advisory panel's would generate $280 million.

Both plans also would set limits on per-pupil spending based on districts' enrollment. And they both recommend that the court's 1989 deadline be delayed to allow for a phase-in period.

The phasing-in, they agree, would lessen the financial impact on districts that would be at new spending limit and allow poorer districts to catch up with their wealthier counterparts.

'Not an Easy Time'

State officials said the recommendations stressing budget limitations reflect the fact that Montana's continuing economic difficulties will make it impossible for the state to equalize spending by raising its share of school revenues.

"When you try to equalize with less money, that means there are going to be more losers," said Mr. Shackleford. "This is not an easy time to try to equalize."

Montana's districts now derive 50 percent of their funds from property taxes, Mr. Shackleford noted. "You can't place them in an equitable situation," he said, without limiting the amount that they can spend.

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