HELENA (AP) - A last- minute school funding package hammered out by the Legislature on Saturday costs the state nothing, but gives schools more flexibility on how they spend some money, lawmakers said.
Most importantly, Republicans said, the complicated formula frees up about $4 million during an anticipated 2004 budget crunch and lets the state make up the money the following year.
Democrats assailed the bill as doing nothing to increase state support for schools, while forcing a shift to local taxpayers.
''This is smoke and mirrors,'' said Rep. Holly Raser, a Missoula Democrat and teacher. ''This is a sham. This is a ploy for the majority to go out and say you have increased school funding. You did not."
Senate Bill 424 was approved in the House 57-43, and in the Senate 33-26.
Although many education groups signed onto the final deal, remaining critics said it was a sham that will cost local property taxpayers in the long run.
School districts with a high poverty level and those with declining enrollment will lose money under the proposal, said Eric Feaver, president of the union known as MEA-MFT.
''If you have a poverty school district, it's going to hit you harder,'' said Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls.
But larger, wealthier school districts will fare better, and that's why school associations ended up supporting the measure, Democrats said.
''There's a little bit of cannibalism going on here,'' said Sen. Dan Harrington, D-Butte.