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The bitter school strike in Billings has resulted in five extra days of school for District 2 students and a new style of negotiating next year, the Billings Gazette reports. The trustees voted 5-4 to add the days and pay attorney's fees for two strike-related lawsuits. They will also drop the absences for students who didn't attend school Nov. 6-26 or don't attend June 9-13.

In a related story, Billings school administrators and union leaders decided to bring in an outside facilitator and keep negotiations intensive and short. The change is hoped to avoid the deadlock that resulted in last fall's 21-day strike.

The Montana Standard follows a decision by Butte school district trustees to cut 21 jobs next year. And they say the worst is yet to come, with a possible school closing decision before fall of 2004. Non-staff cuts include $300,000 in one-time cuts throughout the district, $75,000 from the Butte High department budgets, $35,000 from Butte High extra-curricular budgets and $12,000 from East Middle School.

Also in the Standard, a Whitehall man is in fair condition at a Butte hospital after being shot in the chest with a small-caliber rifle Sunday. No one has been arrested in that case.

In a separate shooting incident, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports that a 23-year-old Belgrade man is recovering from a bullet wound and officers are questioning a 17-year-old boy about a shooting incident that happened Monday morning. The suspect fled the victim's home after the shooting, but later turned himself in after police talked to his mother.

The Chronicle also reports that Bozeman school parents will be able to check their children's grades, attendance and assignments from home next year. The school district is upgrading its Internet software to make that information available on-line.

Helena city officials are going to court over recent legislation that derailed the city's smoking ban, according to reporter Jason Mohr of the Helena Independent Record. A December court decision rendered Helena's Clean Indoor Air Ordinance unenforceable, according to City Attorney David Nielsen, and the 2003 Legislature further clouded matters with House Bill 758. That bill exempted casinos and bars from local smoking bans.

Cherry growers are assessing damage from this weekend's cold snap, according to the Kalispell Daily Interlake. Most of the trees had already been through pollination and had bloomed, so they should be resistant to cold. But area growers were wishing they had more warm early weather to ensure a good start.

Ravalli Republic reporter Jenny Johnson writes that the Hamilton YMCA is scrambling to recover from big budget cuts. To maintain programs, the board has cut two staff members' salaries by 20 percent, restructured its credit card debt and made other changes. It is still about $10,000 in debt to the Hamilton School District. YMCA officials said they were feeling the same changes affecting the whole nonprofit community as a poor economy whittles down donations and public support.

Dinosaur hunters are preparing for their summer season, with a number of sites promising important finds, according to the Great Falls Tribune. A Great Falls family may have its own backyard Stegosaurus to dig up, while Museum of the Rockies paleontologists are uncovering a couple new T-rex skeletons near Jordan.

Also in the Tribune, gas prices are falling as low as $1.49 a gallon as fuel industry watchers predict a low-cost summer. A related national story says pump prices reflect the drop in crude oil prices, which have slipped from almost $40 a barrel before Operation Iraqi Freedom to the mid-$20 range in recent weeks.

But those heading for Washington better gas up early. The Spokane Spokesman Review reports that Washington Gov. Gary Locke just approved a 5-cent a gallon gas-tax hike. It takes effect July 1, and comes after state voters overwhelmingly turned down a ballot initiative that would have raised the tax by 9 cents.

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