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Failing funds

Kara Fox
Sierra Sun
Emma Garrard/Sierra SunA slide at Sierraville School sits unused. The school closed two years ago due to declining enrollment.
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The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and neighboring rural school districts could soon face cuts if Congress does not extend a funding program that expired this fall.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which Congress passed in 2000, currently provides $65 million annually for schools and roads to rural counties in California with national forests. The program expired in September and Congress has yet to extend it.

Smaller counties, like Sierra and Alpine counties, rely heavily on the funding and could see layoffs and school closures as early as next year.

“We’re assuming we’re not receiving the money,” said Gregg Haulk, superintendent of Sierra Plumas Joint Unified School District, which is the only school district in Sierra County. “If the money would have been reauthorized, we would have been all right. We will have layoffs. We will have cuts to programs.”

Haulk said the school district formed a budget crisis team when the county learned it may not receive the $1.8 million from the federal government that it has relied on for so many years. Sierra County has already seen the closure of two schools within two years due to declining enrollment, Haulk said.

Sierra County, north of Truckee on Highway 89, relies on the funds for 25 percent of its budget.

The budget crisis team has determined that the district will have to lay off five teachers and one classified employee and will be spending with a deficit in the next three years if the money isn’t received, Haulk said.

“We can’t continue without something significant happening,” Haulk said.

Haulk said that 74 percent of Sierra County is national forest land and that there is declining enrollment and no industry in the area. Haulk said he and Sierra County Schools Superintendent Mary Genasci will travel to Washington, D.C., in January to “beg” Congress for the money.

Both Placer and Nevada counties receive funding from the act, but the proportion isn’t as significant to their budgets as it is for Sierra Plumas Unified. Ski resorts and high home sales also help the two counties.

Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer said the county received $700,000 a year from the forest reserve funds, with half going to schools and half to roads.

“From Tahoe-Truckee down to the western slope, schools will have to make some decisions in the spring,” McAteer said. “For counties like Sierra and Siskiyou, this is a death nell. I don’t know how those counties will exist.”

Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Dennis Williams said his district received $262,600 this year from the forest reserve funds. He said the district would have to do a budget adjustment in February if it does not receive the money.

“We would dip into the reserves and pay it back next year,” Williams said. “We would have to make some choices. We are not as dependent on it as some districts are.”

The Tahoe Truckee school district has 5,000 students in three counties, so it receives funds from Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties.

President George Bush earlier this year proposed to sell more than 300,000 acres of forest to help fund the program, but the idea was not well received, said Matt Mathes, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.

“There was no support for the president’s program. It was very unpopular in Congress,” Mathes said. “As a result, we are out of ideas. Our own employees live in the small towns. We certainly have a vested interest in this. We don’t want these little towns to suffer.”

Mathes said rural counties in Oregon and Washington will be hit the hardest, as will Northern California counties.

The act expired in September, but counties will receive their last checks within the next month. Many school districts will be forced to make hard decisions during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Many school superintendents said schools are not a priority for Congress, which is why the program has not been extended, they say.

“Failure of Congress to authorize those funds tells you something about their priorities,” said Bud Nobili, Placer County superintendent of schools. “Their priorities are somewhere else.”

Bob Douglas, Tehama County schools superintendent and president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, said he does not care where the government gets the money, as long as the counties are funded.

“We haven’t been able to convince them this a priority,” Douglas said. “The federal government spends a lot of time talking about No Child Left Behind. It’s a great concept, but they just left behind the rural children of California.”


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