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Several local preschools will add slots this school year thanks to money from a grant program created by the state Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock announced Friday.

Around the state, 17 programs were awarded grants ranging from $27,000 to $150,000. The state has $6 million to dole out the next two years.

Three Helena area programs received grants: Eastgate Elementary in East Helena received a $102,868 grant for 18 kids, the ABC Academy received $109,087 for 12 kids and Hawthorne School received $149,853 for 16 kids.

Now schools will in some cases have to scramble to get a teacher, fill the slots with students and develop curriculum in time for the start of classes this fall.

East Helena Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the district had a group of about 20 students who weren't eligible for the age exception kindergarten class. Eastgate Elementary began contacting those parents to offer them a spot in the new preschool class. Whitmoyer said they are also in the process of reviewing applicants for teachers with a preschool endorsement.

"We are so very fortunate," he said. "I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have this program."

The grants are doled out through the Department of Health and Human Services' Stars to Quality program, which started as a preschool ranking system. Grant recipients had to meet certain criteria and officials aimed to include Head Start providers, public schools and private preschools. A total of 285 kids will benefit from the grants.

The grants will effectively function as pilot programs for the state.

“More Montana kids will now have even greater opportunities growing up here than the generations before them,” Bullock said. “We’re finally making this long-awaited investment, and by doing so, building a stronger future for Montana.”

Preschool funding proposals haven't gained traction in the Mountain West, despite programs providing variable levels of public funding in at least 45 states. Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota and New Hampshire provide no funding; North Dakota recently killed a $3 million program.

Bullock asked for $37 million for preschool in 2015 and $12 million in 2017; instead, a compromise was reached during budget negotiations.

Legislators created a new fee for hospitals that will raise $13 million over the next two years; $6 million is earmarked for preschool grants, and the rest goes into the general fund. The payments were described as "temporary" in the law authorizing them.

Finding new funding sources for the creation of preschool programs has often been critical to getting them off the ground in conservative states. For example, New Mexico's Republican Governor signed off on a new preschool program funded through a state tobacco settlement in 2013.

Some Montana Republicans who objected to the grant funding bill pointed to bill language that says the state will "test multiple delivery models, including public programs, private programs and mixed delivery programs through public-private partnerships," as evidence that DPHHS will do more than expand the existing Stars to Quality program.

Erin Loranger of the Independent Record contributed to this story.

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