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January 15, 2003

MSDB escapes major cuts, for now

From: Great Falls Tribune, MT - 15 Jan 2003

Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA -- A great sigh could be heard from Great Falls Tuesday as the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind dodged legislative budget cuts, at least temporarily.

A budget panel voted against leaving MSDB at 2000 spending levels, sparing for now the prospect that the school would face a deep cutback in its budget for the next two years.

The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education recommended that MSDB's 2004-05 budget be set $800,000 higher than if it were based on spending three years ago.

Tuesday's vote sets the MSDB budget for the next two years at about $7.9 million, which is still slightly below its projected current-level spending for the 2004-05 biennium. Cutting $800,000 from the budget would have been a 10 percent cut.

The recommendation next goes to the full House Appropriations Committee, which won't take its final votes on the state budget until March.

"It's still only Day 7 (of the Legislature), so we won't know for quite a while if the school will get to keep those funds," said committee member Rep. Eve Franklin, D-Great Falls. "But this was like a weather vane, and it showed that legislators of both parties realize the school's importance."

Rep. Don Hedges, R-Antelope and chairman of the panel, agreed, calling MSDB "a fundamental service" that the state supplies, allowing deaf and blind students to learn and become independent and functioning adults.

Without Tuesday's vote, the Great Falls school would be facing a $413,000 cut next year and a $394,000 reduction in 2005. The cuts stem from Republican leaders' plans to revert agency budgets to 2000 levels unless the Legislature finds ways to increase revenue to address the projected shortfall.

MSDB Superintendent Steve Gettel said Tuesday that he and his management team had only a few days to pore over the school's tight budget and identify possible cuts that would "impact our sensory impaired students the least."

Cuts of those levels would mean laying off 16 of the school's 98 employees and harming the educational quality for every one of the 74 children at the school and the 275 children in districts around that state that the school assists, he said.

A grim-faced Gettel had outlined those proposed cuts to the subcommittee on Monday. They included:

# Closing a classroom and laying off a teacher and two aides who help six blind children learn to use Braille and other means to communicate.

# Closing a residential cottage for high school girls and laying off nine residential staff members.

# Cutting by two the interpreter-tutor staff, who help deaf children enter the Great Falls public school system, interpreting lectures through sign language.

# Trim the school's five "outreach" workers from five to four. These workers visit 92 outlying school districts, helping teachers and parents provide deaf and blind students with the tools they need to stay in their hometowns.

"We're not out of the woods yet, and like other agencies, we're still having to deal with cuts that the governor and special legislative session made last year," Gettel said after Tuesday's vote. "But we're a whole lot better than we were at this time yesterday."

As the action unfolded Tuesday, Hedges asked for a motion to set the MSDB budget at 2000 levels, thus recommending the $800,000 cut. No one said anything but the motion was approved by a 4-3 vote, and Gettel's chin sank into his chest.

Unexpectedly, Hedges immediately said he would entertain a motion restoring the money. Sen. Bea McCarthy, D-Anaconda, quickly made one.

Rep. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, a panel member and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, reminded Hedges that the subcommittee would have to make up the $800,000 somewhere else in the education budget.

McCarthy said she thinks MSDB should qualify as one of the crucial state programs that qualify for some $60 million the Appropriations Committee is keeping in reserve to spend above 2000 levels.

The subcommittee then voted 5-2 to restore the money, with Lewis voting with the majority.

"We can live with cuts of that level," Bill Sykes, MSDB business manager, said after the meeting.

The panel made a few smaller cuts and recommended continuing a transfer of funds to MSDB made by the Legislature last summer. It takes $57,000 a year from the Montana Telecommunications Access Program which helps deaf people communicate by phone and gives it to MSDB, thereby freeing up money for the state general fund.

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