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HELENA — The House Education Committee heard arguments Wednesday afternoon on a measure aimed at helping high school seniors in Montana maintain access to financial assistance for higher education that may have been jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Bill 612, sponsored by Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, would enable local school board trustees to grant a limited number of current seniors another year of academic and athletic eligibility if the pandemic adversely affected their opportunities to secure collegiate scholarships or financial aid. Buttrey told fellow lawmakers that seniors across Montana have already seen their final year of high school “stolen from them,” an injustice that would be compounded if their shot at higher education were robbed, as well.

“No person has been immune to the pain and strain and stress caused by the pandemic,” Buttrey said. “There are times, however, I fear that we forget how hard this period has been for our school-age children.”

HB 612 sets limits on the number of students whose high school tenure can be extended based on district size. First-class districts, or those with a student enrollment of 6,500 or higher, would be limited to five students each. Districts with a population between 1,000 and 6,500 students would be limited to four, while districts with fewer than 1,000 students would be limited to three. Buttrey recommended in his introduction that the bill be amended to reduce each of those limits by two students, which would decrease the total associated costs for retaining those students to $164,000. That might sound like a lot, he said, but if 50 to 100 kids can benefit from the extra year, “that’s about $3,000 per kid if everybody took advantage of it, and I think that’s a pretty good investment to make.”

Part of Buttrey’s concern about scholarship opportunities for current seniors stems from a decision by the NCAA and other collegiate athletic associations to extend scholarships for current college athletes another year. By doing so, Buttrey said, those associations have further limited the number of athletic scholarships available to students who would be enrolling as college freshmen this fall. He added that extending athletic eligibility for high school seniors would require buy-in from the nonprofit Montana High School Association.

That buy-in is unlikely to come, judging by the testimony of MHSA Executive Director Mark Beckman. He spoke in opposition to HB 612, saying the bill would have several unintended consequences for high school athletics. Retaining current senior athletes for another year — creating what Beckman referred to as “super seniors” — could displace incoming seniors on sports teams and create competitive imbalances between schools. Beckman also pointed out that the bill could establish disparity among student athletes.

“There are a group of athletes every sports season who suffer with season-ending injuries and illnesses that are not afforded this same opportunity,” Beckman said.

Members of the committee raised a number of questions about the bill’s execution, among them how exactly local school officials would select specific students to retain, and how they would determine whether a student lost a scholarship opportunity as a direct result of the pandemic. Buttrey reiterated throughout that HB 612 was specifically designed to leave those determinations up to local control. Ultimately, he said, trustees and educators in each district have the best insight into which students stand to lose opportunities.

“I’m just not comfortable standing by and doing nothing,” Buttrey said. “Maybe no one takes advantage of this if we pass the law, but what about that one kid or those 10 kids or those 40 kids that have the opportunity to do something really special with their lives?”

The committee did not take immediate action Wednesday on HB 612.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...