Montana Study Documents the High Cost Of Equalizing School-Construction Funding

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Many of Montana's inadequate school buildings and classrooms are concentrated in the state's poorest districts, according to a recent survey by the legislature's fiscal analyst.

As a result, the study suggests, efforts to equalize school-construction spending in the state will be costly.

The legislature last year approved a plan to equalize basic school funding, and is expected to consider ways of evening out spending on construction and transportation in 1991.

With approximately 4 out of every 10 districts reporting that a new facility or extensive remodeling of an existing one will be needed before the 1995-96 school year, districts estimated that the price tag on school construction would be $177 million over the next five years.

The survey, to which 443 of Montana's 546 school districts responded, asked questions regarding the age and condition of existing buildings; the cost, financing, and reason for construction of buildings since 1980; the district's facility-planning process and plans for construction in the near future; and the size and success of bond elections held in the 1980's.

Of the 595 school buildings covered in the survey, 103 will need to be replaced or remodeled--a task that will involve subtantial investment, the survey notes, because "it represents nearly as many buildings as have been constructed in the past two decades."

The survey was prepared for the Oversight Committee on School Funding Implementation, which is considering additional changes in the school-financing laws for the 1991 session.

The finance system approved by the legislature last year seeks to equalize school funding by substituting state revenues for districts' reliance on local property taxes. Capital construction and transpor8tation were not included in the equalization plan, however.

While the survey found "a roughly even distribution of recent construction activity across different wealth quartiles," nearly half of the districts that identified inadequate buildings or classrooms were in the poorest 25 percent of districts.

"It appears that wealthier districts may have been more able to replace and remodel buildings and therefore show less need currently," the study indicates.

With the individual cost of construction ranging from less than $100,000 to more than $10 million, it says, "districts anticipated that most of the projects would be financed with bonds, especially the more expensive projects."

Other sources of financing will be districts' general funds, building reserves, federal and state support, and private contributions, the report notes.--jw

Vol. 09, Issue 34

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