After voters approved four Missoula County Public Schools levies last week, the sigh of relief from MCPS headquarters added to already strong spring winds.

But the word "cut" is still on the lips of MCPS administrators who, as grateful as they are for Missoulians' support of the city's largest school district, are still wary of the developing budget picture.

On Wednesday, MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle assembled his cabinet to discuss the district's priorities.

"We need to review how we can cut non-impacting classroom expenditures," he said. "How can we cut that back and still maintain our program and still maintain our teaching staff for the work they do?"

The main complicating factor now is a tussle between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the recently adjourned Montana Legislature.

On Thursday, Schweitzer vetoed House Bill 316, which the governor accused of "stealing" revenue from programs to fund a $14 million increase in school budgets over the next two years.

Schweitzer is now advising school districts to plan for a 2.43 percent increase in the budget for the 2012-13 school year, vowing to secure that funding - about $57 million - when the Legislature meets again in 2013.

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That scenario is troubling, because there is no guarantee legislators will agree to that money - especially given that Republicans are sore that Schweitzer vetoed HB316. And the Montana School Boards Association has told districts not to count on that funding.

"The worst-case scenario is that the funding will fall from 2.43 percent to 1.6 percent," said MCPS business manager Pat McCue.

That scenario seems more likely now.

Apostle's cabinet - which includes the three regional directors, the head of the teachers union, and the directors of business, maintenance and human resources, among others - all agreed that retaining teaching positions and programs is the top priority.

"Our goal is to bring back programs and make sure the kids have their programs," said Steve McHugh, MCPS human resources manager.

Two months ago, MCPS sent letters to its 90 nontenured teachers that their jobs were in limbo until the state settled on a funding formula, and the district knew the fate of its levies.

The levies passed, but the district - in fact, all of Montana's 480 school districts - are waiting for the final word from Helena.

Still, MCPS is intent on returning all of its teachers, including those who have not yet attained tenure.

All the elementary nontenured teachers have been informed that they still have their jobs, and many in the high school end of the district have as well.

Even if the rosiest scenario unfolds - a 1 percent increase next year, and 2.43 percent the following year - the district's high schools are looking at a net decrease of around $125,000.

"The K-8 system was a pretty clean-cut situation, but in the high schools, it's not quite as clean," said McHugh.

The district has identified 31 "no-brainers" in its high schools - teachers who cannot and will not lose their jobs without the district risking its accreditation, said McHugh.

Now MCPS' three regional managers will meet with high school principals to discuss ways to trim expenses without risking programs or reducing staff, said Apostle.

"If we can carve $100,000 or $125,000 out of the high schools and still maintain class size, that would be helpful," he said.

Still, the current situation is almost infinitely better than if Missoula's voters had not approved the four levies totaling nearly $7 million.

"This is a much better picture for us to deal with than if the levies had failed," said Apostle.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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