By SARAH COOKE
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Some will lose a teacher or two. Others will put off new textbooks and programs or delay staff raises for another year.
While not the infusion of cash some had hoped, the major school funding bill that came out of this year's Legislature will hold over most school districts in the state until a new school finance system can be put in place next year.
In Columbia Falls, the legislation will mean an extra $476,000 for schools, no major program cuts and minimal, if any, increases in property taxes.
Schools in Glendive will get a $152,000 boost in state aid, although the loss of federal grant money and rising health insurance premiums will likely mean a net loss of up to $80,000 and at least one less teacher.
In Fort Benton, the budget will stay about the same and property tax bills will go down.
Office of Public Instruction figures show 6 percent of districts still losing money because of severely declining enrollment. But overall, the $32 million funding boost will keep most districts above water for the next 12 months, state officials said.
The funding, signed into law by Gov. Brian Schweitzer last month, is a 7 percent increase over the current school year and the largest boost in state aid in more than a decade.
But while school administrators appreciate any help, some say the money does little to make up for years of underfunding and are tentatively pinning their hopes on an interim legislative committee's work over the next six months.
Lawmakers created the eight-member panel to finish developing a new school funding formula and set state aid levels for the 2006-07 school year. They must finish their work by December, when a special legislative session is planned to resolve the issue.
''I think there are some really good people on the interim committee,'' said Dick Cameron, superintendent of schools in Glendive. ''I have high hopes, but I temper those high hopes with the fact that I have watched opportunities be squandered. I have watched funds for K-12 education being bled off for other areas.''
His district, like many, is struggling under the current funding system, which allots money based on enrollment but, critics say, doesn't account for fixed costs and punishes districts like Glendive with declining student numbers.
''We won't be adding any new classes,'' Cameron said of next school year. ''We're hoping we won't have to cut any specific classes or sports or activities, but obviously there's a lot of things we won't be spending money on.''
The complexity and, some say, inequity of the current funding system is one reason for the wide ranging impacts of this year's school finance bill.
Columbia Falls and Missoula expect to lose students next year, but will still get more money from the state. Other districts with declining enrollment, however, will experience funding cuts of up to 23 percent.
Jim Standaert, an analyst in the Legislative Fiscal Division, said it generally depends on how badly districts are losing students. Those with enrollments falling at a rate higher than the state average of 9 percent will typically get less money from the state next year, he said.
Columbia Falls Superintendent Michael Nicosia and other administrators are hoping the interim committee will craft a simpler funding formula allowing them to focus more on student needs than state finances.
Nicosia's district isn't expecting any significant cuts next school year, but will put off new textbooks and library materials for another year, as well as programs for at-risk and gifted and talented students.
''In the last five years, we've cut $2 million in personnel and services. ... We don't buy textbooks. We don't have library book items in the budget. There are a lot of things we don't have,'' he said.
Missoula schools will get an extra $1.3 million from the state. However, much of that could be eaten up by teacher salaries, which district officials are currently negotiating, leaving less for student needs and services.
''There's a big question mark in that area in respect to the budget,'' district spokeswoman Lesli Brassfield said.
In Fort Benton, the elementary school will be down one teacher next school year because of money problems but is doing well enough that Superintendent Bob Anderson hopes to offer full-day kindergarten in the spring. Property taxes also are expected to drop significantly, something Anderson said residents deserve after years of passing levies to increase local taxes.
''I think we've moved ahead,'' Anderson said. ''We didn't enjoy any of that new revenue, but I think the Legislature did the best it could at that time.
''Obviously, though, we are anxious about the future years and how they may look for our school district. ... I'm always nervous when I hear they're going to streamline and simplify the process because it's a complex process,'' he said.
On the Net:
Office of Public Instruction: http://www.opi.state.mt.us