Federal school funding comes through | SierraSun.com

Federal school funding comes through

Help is on the way for area school districts that have been scraping by without federal funding after education money was stalled in a Congressional debate over the war in Iraq.

A one-year extension to the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act passed the U.S. Congress this week and awaits President Bush’s signature.

The extension, rolled into a $95 billion war funding bill, would send $425 million to rural schools across the West including in Placer, Nevada and Sierra counties.

U.S. Representative John Doolittle, who voted for the bill, represents Truckee, Tahoe and many of the rural areas most hurt by the stalled funding. He said it is the place of the federal government, which owns much of the land in his district, to support the schools.

“This is not some welfare that is being doled out to these counties as some type of gift,” said Doolittle, in an interview with the Sierra Sun on Tuesday. “Federal land ownership continues to increase. There is hardly any tax base to support roads and schools.”

Doolittle’s district will receive $23 million dollars from the extension. He said that securing federal funding for schools in his district has been his highest priority this year.

Although the funding is only good for one year, Doolittle has co-sponsored legislation to extend the school funding through 2011 that could be voted on this year.

He is also looking to find a more permanent fix to the problem, said Brian Jensen, the congressman’s district director.

“He wants to make it as permanent and stable as possible,” said Jensen. “We’re attacking this on several different levels.”

The prospect of a long-term extension of the act would be welcomed by schools that find it difficult to plan ahead when funding is in question, said Terena Mendonca, assistant superintendent of business for Nevada County schools.

Nevada County urges their districts not to use the funding to pay teachers, since the money is not assured into the future.

“Districts have built their entire budgets around the absence of those dollars,” said Mendonca.

While Nevada County, which expects $700,000 out of the extension, has the good fortune of treating the federal funds as a question mark, other more rural districts have to rely on the money for the very core of their operation.

Sierra County, with 74 percent of its land being national forest property, is a county that relies on the act heavily.

“For our district it is a nice, short-term fix,” said Gregg Haulk, superintendent of Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District.

Haulk’s district had to budget for this year without counting on the $950,000 they received from the act last year. That meant sending out layoff notices to teachers and other school district employees. Although no one lost their job, through early retirements and teachers choosing to move to other districts, the district will start the year with four fewer teachers than last year.

“That’s when you start to lose some of your younger teachers,” said Haulk of sending out the notices, “because they can’t stay around and wait.”

Sierra County is slated to receive $1.85 million from the recently passed bill.

But Haulk said he is disappointed that the schools will now have to start fighting for an extension of the act to prevent another crisis in the near future.

“We going to start all over again fighting for re-authorization,” said Haulk.

All funding from the act will be split between funding schools and rural roads.

The bill passed the House 280-142 and the Senate 80-14 late Thursday.

Final passage capped weeks of dispute after Democrats dropped Iraq troop withdrawal deadlines that Bush promised to veto. That concession led to “no” votes from liberals including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted “yes.”

” The Associated Press contributed to this report

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