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Monday, April 24, 2000 Missoulian Editorial Board members for Missoula County Public Schools met last week in a work session to go over their budget for the 2000-2001 year. The meeting began with flares of anger and impatience  among trustees first, but then for the problems they see ahead for education and schools.

That elected officials develop some frustration with each other is human nature on public boards. To their credit, they set aside these individual differences for the remainder of the night and went about their work. And it wasn't pleasant: The board is looking to cut about $950,000 from its elementary school budget. About 20 teachers will be cut.

The district is trying to maintain smaller class sizes in the younger grades, and expects to do so in all but 18 of 158 classrooms. "There are some high spots," one official said.

Administration, curriculum reviews, textbooks, technology and dues to professional organizations  can they be cut to avoid cutting teachers? No, said a majority of the board. Those already are down to minimum levels.

Since about 90 percent of the budget is made up of salaries and benefits, there isn't another place to go for deep cuts. "The district is in dire shape," said trustee Rett Parker. There is no hidden pot of money, said another.

Working with school principals, district administrators have presented the best possible options for this next school year, and their plan deserves support. Board members also deserve credit for sticking to the task  asking questions, looking for alternatives, questioning expenses, then supporting the plan that makes most sense. In this case, a majority of the trustees believes that suggestions made by Superintendent Mary Vagner and other administrators are the best among distasteful choices. With the state paying a smaller and smaller percentage of educational costs and local financing limited, these are the best options for Missoula schools and their students.

People who want to know more, or have questions to ask of their own, should set aside a few hours Tuesday to attend a public presentation about the budget. It begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Sentinel High School cafeteria.

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