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SUMMARY: Having made the popular decision to reverse the Prescott School closure, trustees now face far harder choices.

Missoula school trustees made the easy decision Thursday night. The School Board's new majority voted to keep Prescott School open, reversing plans to shutter the school in response to falling enrollment and limited funding.

Subsequent decisions will be harder. Much harder.

The about-face on the school closure came as no surprise. Voters last month dumped two veteran trustees for two newcomers who'd made opposition to school closures the central theme of their campaigns. School closures have been controversial in Missoula. Keeping Prescott open is a popular move.

Having decided what it wants to do, however, school trustees now must decide how they're going to do it. They'll have to write off the savings anticipated through the school's closure and cut other spending to come up with enough money to staff and run Prescott this fall. The total additional cost doesn't seem all that great at first blush - maybe $150,000 to $200,000's out of a $22 million budget.

But the vast majority of the school district's budget goes to salaries and benefits for teachers, staff and administrators, virtually all of whom already have contracts signed for the coming school year. Much of the remaining budget goes for heat and lights and other unavoidable expenses. Discretionary spending makes up about 5 percent of the budget, and it's from that fraction the district most likely will find the money to keep Prescott open.

Cutbacks on such things as equipment repairs, travel and training could free up a little money. But the bulk of the discretionary spending goes to classroom supplies and textbooks. Maybe the answer is as simple as having teachers and students throughout the district suck it up, keep using old textbooks and bring their supplies from home.

But even if a school budget that's already been stretched thin in recent years still holds enough nickels and dimes to keep Prescott open this fall, the School Board faces far greater challenges in coming years. Enrollment in Missoula's elementary and middle schools has fallen 15 percent - by 887 students - over the past decade, and there's no sign of a turnaround. Because state education funding is based on enrollment, fewer students translates into fewer dollars. Local funding supplements state appropriations, but it doesn't even come close to making up the difference.

The graying population and other demographic changes, combined with the relatively high cost of houses making Missoula less attractive to young families, portend continued decline in enrollment. The School Board has in recent years pursued a "shrink-to-fit" strategy, opting to maintain instruction and programs at the expense of buildings. With the reversal of that policy, the board now faces financial pressures that promise to grow each passing year. Frankly, these financial pressures seem overwhelming. In 2002, rising utility bills alone will cost the district an estimated $500,000 over current spending. Pay and benefit increases guaranteed under contracts with teachers and staff, coupled with state funding that continues to decline with enrollment, make a seven-figure deficit likely for the 2002-2003 school year.

Of course, where there's a will, there's a way. District voters and the new School Board majority have clearly expressed their will to keep existing schools open, regardless of enrollment and funding trends. The way to do that, we fear, ultimately will involve fewer teachers who are less generously paid, teaching to fuller classrooms in poorly equipped and ill-kept buildings.

In any event, the School Board is unlikely to find many of the decisions yet to come as easy as the one made Thursday night.

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