Education Funds Ignored

The Montana State Land Board announced that they are turning $120 million over to Montana public schools. The funds are those generated from state lands held in trust for the purpose of funding public education.

While $120 million sounds like a lot of money, the fact is it is nothing compared to what could be. The State Land Board is missing a huge opportunity to fully fund Montana schools because of an anti-business political agenda and a steadfast opposition to developing natural resources.

The ultimate losers are Montana school children.

The State Land Board and the State Legislature holds in their power the means to generate huge sums for education by developing the resources that were set aside, at the state's founding, specifically, for educating our children.

The State Land Board oversees assets worth $2.8 billion, which includes more than five million acres of land and an even greater amount in mineral rights.

The fact is $120 million is less than one-half of one percent of $2.8 billion. By anyone's calculations that is a dismal return on capital. Even the poorest businessman could accidentally generate a better return with that kind of investment.

The Land Board is made up of five elected state officials, who in general have had an astounding record of vehemently opposing the development of natural resources — most especially those on state lands. Most ironically, one of the staunchest opponents has been Denise Juneau, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who stands with the rest of the education community, every two years, pleading and demanding for more education funding from state coffers.

With so little return on state land assets, those dollars are expected to come out of the pockets of the hard-working, beleaguered taxpayers.

The $120 million covers about eight percent of school budgets. So all the State Land Board needs to do is increase their return on capital to six percent, and they could cover most of the cost of education for the entire state. That is what the founders had in mind when they established school trust lands, but of course, they had no idea the day would come when educating our children would take a back-seat to a progressive political agenda.

The political disconnect is all the more incomprehensible given another recent report that 80 percent of Montana voters support the development of timber, oil, natural gas, mining and coal. But that is nothing new – every year the Montana Chamber of Commerce's P-Base Survey has yielded very much the same percentage of support, with a possibility of error at +/- 3 percent.

It's very hard to get a clear answer about why this situation isn't changed – from either side of the isle. Why can't state lands be managed in a way that seriously funds education? Why are state policies regarding natural resource development dictated by a very small minority? Perhaps public school officials would develop a deeper respect for natural resource industries and other revenue generating enterprises if their funding were directly dependent upon it.

At the very least, it would seem that if the State Land Board is not going to fulfill the intent of the "land trust" they hold, they should be required to sell off the lands so they can be returned to the tax base and relieve Montana taxpayers of some of the burden.

One things for sure, the State Land Board should be embarrassed about the $120 million, rather than bragging that it increased $80 million since 2004. There's nothing to brag about in short changing our children of the kind of superb education that the state founders envisioned.