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HELENA — A series of complicated financial transactions set in motion by the 2001 Legislature will allow Montana’s struggling public schools to collect an extra $9.6 million in the next two years, state officials announced Thursday.

The money is the result of Senate Bill 495, part of an approximately $31 million increase in public-school funding approved by the Legislature during the past session. Two former teachers, Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown and Democratic Superintendent of Public Schools Linda McCulloch, worked together to craft the bill.

“It feels so good to be able to work for a common cause,” McCulloch said of her collaboration with Brown. She added that she and Brown have already discussed other new ideas for future legislative sessions.

“It’s surprising how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit,” Brown said.

Until the next session in 2003, the money from SB495 will help schools keep programs like advanced classes, art and music, McCulloch said.

Ten-year-old Brandon Branscum, one of several children who attended a press conference announcing the bill’s results, said he hopes the money will ensure “all the teachers don’t lose their jobs, and kindergarten through third (grade) can go to P.E. and music.”

The bill allowed the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to borrow $46 million from the state’s permanent coal tax trust fund and use the money to buy mineral rights for the state’s school trust lands. The $46 million will go directly into the school trust account. Then, over the next 30 years, the department will use what it earns in mineral royalties to pay back the coal trust and repay the state’s general fund for lost coal-trust interest, and use the rest to help support public schools.

Jason Thielman, Brown’s chief deputy, said the new process should create a more stable source of money for schools.

Rep. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, a former state budget director, called it “the most creative thing we’ve ever done in this state with the coal trust.” Lewis and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, sponsored the legislation.

“I hope it’s a model for the future,” Lewis added.

Thomas said SB495 is a short-term solution that he hopes has long-term effects.

A long-term solution, Thomas said is SB493, which he also sponsored. It asks voters to approve investing a portion of the school trust fund in stocks. Current law only allows the state to invest the fund in bonds, which have a historically smaller yield. Thomas said “kids will be better off more than ever,” if the proposal in SB493 is also successful.

In addition, the state is conducting an interim study of school funding during the interim to determine whether the next Legislature should consider changes to how the state distributes money to public schools.

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