Certain politicians get thanks from moms for Mother’s Day

A group of about 20 moms and their kids – a stroller brigade – strolled along the street between Missoula’s Public Library and Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus’ Missoula offices earlier today.

Stroller brigadeHere’s why: They were showing their support for strong federal clean air protections, and wanted to thank the senators for their support of stronger Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

The full news release on the event is available below.

But as they say: Wait, there’s more!

Montana Women Vote is also encouraging folks to thank their favorite state politicians now that the 2011 legislative session has come to a close.

“As this challenging Montana legislative session has come to an end, we can all be grateful to the brave and tireless legislators who stood and advocated for issues important to women and families,” says the notice sent out by Montana Women Vote.

The note includes a link to a Mother’s Day card you can print out, write on and send to an elected official of your choice. It reads, “Thank you from all the mothers, fathers, children and grandchildren for your hard work for the future of Montana. Your mama would be proud.”

The folks at Montana Women Vote, thorough people that they are, also include handy links to a complete list of Montana legislator addresses, and a list of other statewide elected officials’ addresses.

If one of your favorite state legislators happens to be Missoula Democrat Carol Williams, the first female Senate Majority Leader in Montana history, then you will be delighted with this coming Sunday’s guest column. It’s also about certain congressional delegates and the Clean Air Act.

But, dear readers, I won’t make you wait to read the opinion piece by Williams, a mother of three and grandmother of three. Here’s a special sneak peek for your reading pleasure, following the news release about the stroller brigade.

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Charter school bill set for legislative showdown

Last week I started following the ill-fated progress of House Bill 603, which would have allowed charter schools to start up in Montana. It was killed shortly after I began following it, but similar language has now popped up in the school funding bill currently under discussion in the Montana Legislature.

Here’s the link to the dead bill, the link to the school funding bill – Senate Bill 329 – and a link to Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison’s handy explanation of the whole situation.

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Should parents have the right to leave their kids unbuckled?

In Montana, people have the right to decide whether they want to significantly increase their odds of dying in a car crash by opting not to use their seat belts. Even though it is against the law not to use a seat belt while riding in a vehicle, it’s considered a secondary offense, meaning you won’t be pulled over for it unless you’re doing something else wrong.

Reportedly, our state is the only one in the nation that allows even children to be driven around unbuckled. Even if a police officer sees a kid or two bouncing around in a moving vehicle, not buckled up or strapped into an age-appropriate car seat like they’re supposed to be, the officer cannot do a thing about it unless the driver is committing some other traffic infraction as well.

The Missoulian’s editorial board has said before that this sends a weird message – essentially that the people of Montana consider a broken tail light a bigger problem than an unbuckled seat belt.

Today, the editorial board over at the Billings Gazette opined in favor of a billSenate Bill 319 – that would apply specifically to child safety restraints in vehicles. It would allow police to pull over drivers if anyone in the car younger than 18 isn’t wearing a seatbelt.

The Gazette reported that:

Last year, 25 people under the age of 18 were killed in Montana highway crashes, 60 percent of them weren’t wearing seat belts or in child safety seats, said Jim Lynch, MDOT director. If all had been buckled in, statistically, five lives could have been saved.

That’s reason enough for parents to make sure their kids are buckled up every time they hit they road – whether it’s the law or not.

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HB 281 would revise laws for guardians ad litem

House Bill 281 is sponsored by Missoula Democrat Betsy Hands in the Montana Legislature. It would revise the statutes governing guardians ad litem to require training and establish a grievance process, among other things. Here’s a letter I just received in support of its passage:

I am writing in response to recent action by our judges of the 4th Judicial District to institute “local rules” for guardians ad litem, individuals assigned by the court to represent children in families with contentious custody issues. Montana’s laws governing GALs are some of the weakest in the country.

The half-page Montana statute currently guiding the work of GALs states that a GAL may be appointed by the court to represent a child “with respect to the child’s support, parenting, and parental contact.” The GAL “has access to court, medical, psychological, law enforcement, social services, and school records pertaining to the child and the child’s siblings and parents or caretakers.” GALs in Montana currently charge their clients $60-$200/hour.

This same highly paid person, delegated with the utmost authority over the lives of children and families, is not required to have any education or training. They are not required to have knowledge or experience in areas of child development, child abuse, substance abuse, or domestic violence. They are not required even to have a two-year technical college degree. This same person has no oversight beyond the judge who has assigned them to the case.

Thanks to our local judges, Missoula County now has some very general guidelines for GALs to follow as they navigate the custody and legal system, making life-altering recommendations for children and families. Unfortunately, this same group of judges, with the exception of Judge Dusty Deschamps, does not support the current legislation, House Bill 281, which would mandate education and training, as well as oversight.

Montana citizens cannot allow HB 281 to go unpassed; we cannot allow this unregulated industry to continue controlling the lives of children in such an uneducated, uninformed, unsupervised way. Please call or write your legislators today. Urge them to vote for HB 281.

Emily McKey,

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Missoula legislator sponsors bill to reform guardian ad litem laws

House Bill 281 seems to be making some headway in the Montana Legislature. Last month it received a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, and a fiscal note has been printed.

The law, sponsored by Missoula’s Rep. Betsy Hands, would revise state laws relating to the guardians ad litem system.

This week’s edition of the Missoula Independent carries a story about this legislation and additional efforts by the group Montanans Supporting Guardian Guidelines to improve laws that oversee (or fail to oversee) the court-appointed representatives charged with advocating the best interests of children.

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MT governor talks education in State of the State address; Save the Children exec talks state of women and children in Haiti

Last night Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer gave his annual State of the State speech, and a notable emphasis was on education funding.

Paying for K-12 and higher education has been a bit contentious this legislative session, with varying amounts proposed by the governor’s office and legislative leadership, as well as varying methods of providing that funding.

Here’s the crux of the issue:

Schweitzer has proposed a $3.8 billion state budget for the next two years, with increases in state funding for the university system and public schools.

Republican leaders at the Legislature, however, began their work on the budget earlier this month by creating a budget floor some $300 million below that amount, saying they’re working off revenue estimates that are much lower than the governor’s.

On education, he reminded lawmakers of their investment in full-day kindergarten four years ago, saying it is just now starting to pay off.

“If (the Legislature) chooses to decrease our support for public education, you do so as a reflection of your values, not for lack of available resources,” Schweitzer said. “We have the money in the bank.”

Meanwhile, Caroline Miles of Save the Children was also talking about education at the University of Montana, only her take on the subject was a worldwide one. And the situation in places like Haiti looks grim, especially when it comes to educational opportunities:

The likelihood kids in Haiti would be sitting in a high school classroom like the one Kevin Ritchlin runs at Big Sky High School is slim to none.

Even before an earthquake shattered the poverty-stricken country just over a year ago, only 50 percent of kids attended school. Those back in school today sit in tents and probably won’t stay past sixth grade.

This is not, however, cause for despair. Organizations like Save the Children are rallying to help with programs like the “Good Goes” campaign, which channels the world’s rivers of compassionate acts – and gifts both big and small (like knitted hats for newborns) – into an ocean of aid.

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Legislature talks school bullies, education funding and more

A Monday hearing before a Montana Legislative committee brought out school officials from across the state to talk about bullying at school and the need for uniform policies to deal with bullies.

But SB 141 is not the only proposed bill that addresses bullying. SB 196, introduced by Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, takes up bullying beyond the classroom “by providing remedies to address hostile work environments; providing processes for schools to maintain healthy work environments by providing remedies for bullying or abusive conduct” and so on.

So here we have, in effect, two bills that address bullying in Montana’s schools – one bill that focuses on child victims, and another that focuses on adult victims.

Also today, Montanans were told to expect another bill to be introduced into the Legislature next week that would propose an alternative to the governor’s  suggested method of funding schools and education. It has tentative support from the Montana Rural Education Association and the Montana School Boards Association.

The crux of both proposals is oil and gas revenues generated from certain natural resource-rich counties in eastern Montana. Gov. Brian Schweitzer would like to see more of that money – 90 percent of the revenues – more evenly distributed to school districts throughout the state, instead of just the 30 percent that benefit now.

Sen. Llew Jones, on the other hand, would like to see those oil- and gas-producing counties keeping more of the money, and instead will propose that school districts with “high-value property” pay more taxes to the state, so that statewide property tax mills would foot a larger share of the funding bill for every school district.

Follow that? Me neither. Hopefully the actual bill language will lay out the funding process  more clearly than I was able to explain it here.

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Montana kids remain free to drop out at 16

If you’re unhappy with this week’s news that the state Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee tied on a 5-5 vote over whether to raise the age of compulsory education from 16 to 18 or upon completion of graduation requirements, you have company.

Here’s a letter scheduled to run in the Missoulian this Sunday:

It was one of those “are you kidding me” days. I picked up a daily paper to read that a bill to require students to stay in school till they were 18 or graduated didn’t make it out of committee (Missoulian, Jan. 19). One of the reasons was that it could cost the state over a million dollars if those kids stay in school. Are you kidding me! Somebody should have been embarrassed that was even said out loud. We don’t want them to stay in school because it costs too much?

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Montana dentists, hygienists wrangle over sealants in schools

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Helena’s Sen. Mary Caferro, would allow dental hygienists to set up clinics for specific dental services – sealants, specifically – in public schools. A hearing on the bill last week brought forth a range of interesting arguments both for and against the bill, nicely captured in today’s Billings Gazette editorial.

After reading the bill (it’s short – only two pages long), I’m going to have to side with the Gazette. I understand why dentists might decry a sealant clinic as a poor substitute for full dental services – but ultimately, even a little dental care is better than no care at all. And who knows? Maybe some brief time in a dentist’s chair at school will get more kids thinking about taking good care of their teeth.

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The Montana Legislature will be legislating your kids

That’s right, among the hundreds (thousands?) of proposed bills Montana’s legislators will be looking at this session are dozens related to K-12 education, child welfare and, generally, Montana’s kids.

Public school parents have plenty of education proposals to dig into but home-school parents should be paying attention, too. In fact, there’s a draft bill on hold (LC 0891) that specifically calls for revisions to education law “to protect and support homeschooling.”

Tell you what I’ll do. On an as-I’m-able-to basis, I’ll tackle specific bills as drafts become available.

Let’s start with … hmmm … Senate Bill 44, which basically seeks to raise the age of compulsory school enrollment from 16 to 18. This would mandate that school-age kids would receive an education until they either turned 18 or met graduation requirements. The text of the draft bill is available here, and an Associated Press story on the bill is available here.

On a related note, there’s a rumor going around that another bill has been drafted that proposes to save the state money by returning kindergarten to half-days (currently we have full-day kindergarten in Montana). I’m hoping to come across this as I delve into the legislative session, but if anyone knows what bill contains this proposal please send me the bill number, as it would help me cut to the chase.

And if you have a favorite – or particularly despised – piece of state legislation, just let me know and I’ll tackle it next.

– MM

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