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HELENA - Even though Montana public schools are facing rosier budget outlooks than just a few months ago, top education officials still said Tuesday that voter-approved increases in local mill levies are critical to keeping K-12 education afloat.

Voters throughout the state headed to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to increase the number of property tax mills they pay to support their local schools. Those mills make up a portion of the spending for elementary and high schools, while state spending makes up the remaining share.

Education officials said that since the 2001 Legislature appropriated less than half of the $67 million they'd sought, levies will be key to ensuring teachers don't lose jobs and programs stay intact. They also said that even if increases are approved, cutbacks may still be necessary in some of Montana's school districts.

Overall, lawmakers agreed to spend $31 million more on K-12 education over the next two years. That amount includes $25.6 million for schools' base budgets and another $5.4 million in new flexible spending.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch said usually more than 90 percent of mill levy elections are successful in Montana, a rate that is encouraging.

"What that tells us is our communities in Montana support their local schools and are willing to support them financially," said McCulloch, a Democrat. "Nothing has happened that would make me think that anything would be different in this election than in the past."

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said he's hopeful the proposed levies across the state will be approved in most areas. Melton speculated that about 100 districts that otherwise wouldn't have been able to seek a levy increase will be able do so because of a new 2001 law allowing them to ask voters to spend up to the same amount allowed by their budgets last year.

Still, he said, districts will face budget reductions leading to cuts in programs and staff. He added that it remains unfair that local taxpayers continue to bear a heavy burden of funding education.

"I don't take anything for granted, but I'm cautiously optimistic of the outcome of those elections," said Melton.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state's largest teacher and public employee union, said if it weren't for local mill levies a lot of programs such as gifted and talented, music and art would cease to exist. He said if mill levies fail, school districts will "look streamlined and bare naked" and offer nothing but impoverished programs and professionals.

"If you don't vote for a local levy you are essentially saying is I want my school just to provide reading, writing and arithmetic," said Feaver.

Feaver also is optimistic mill levies throughout Montana will be approved and believes voters would support spending even more if asked. Now that districts can only offer one mill levy election, rather than several, they often are more conservative in the amount they seek from voters, he said.

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