Loss of timber funds hits rural schools hardest | SierraSun.com

Loss of timber funds hits rural schools hardest

SACRAMENTO (AP) ” More than 100 teachers and administrators in rural California school districts have received layoff notices as their counties cope with the potential loss of about $70 million in federal funding.

The money comes from timber-cutting receipts on federal land but has been tied up in the politics over the Iraq war.

Over the past six years, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 paid $2.9 billion to 700 counties in 39 states but was allowed to lapse at the end of last year. That left many rural California counties without money they have relied on for essential services such as road clearing and school libraries.

In Plumas County, mountain highways string together nine schools spread over 2,500 square miles in the northern Sierra Nevada. The district could lose all its librarians, cafeterias and guidance counselors for junior and senior high schools starting next year, county schools Superintendent Michael Chelotti said Tuesday.

He sent layoff notices to a third of the county’s teachers and half its administrators last week ” 55 in all ” and expects to lay off more employees in April. The last two continuation high schools are slated to close in September.

“We’re just cutting everything that we can cut. We’re just down to people now,” Chelotti said. “I mean, it’s not like we have any fabulous programs that we can shut down.”

Plumas County stands to lose more than $2 million annually in federal timber money, about 8 percent of its annual budget. Declining enrollment could cost it another $1.3 million.

Rural schools and counties have been bracing for life without the money since Congress refused to renew the subsidy, but some say there’s no more room to cut.

The Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District already closed three schools and eliminated all its music programs following a fiscal crisis in 2003, said Mary Genasci, superintendent of the Sierra County Office of Education.

School leaders tried to trim another $950,000 in programs that otherwise would have been paid for by the timber financing. That’s nearly one-sixth of the district’s annual budget.

“We came up with $450,000 worth of cuts, and we said no more. We’re not going to do this to our students,” Genasci said.

The county can use its state-mandated emergency fund for a couple of years, but then the state would be forced to take over the school district if it is fiscally unsound, she said.

The timber program dates to the early 1900s, when Congress agreed to pay counties a quarter of the receipts from logging on federal land in exchange for the loss of tax revenue they otherwise could get through development.

But environmental restrictions in recent years led to severe cutbacks in logging. Congress authorized subsidies to timber counties in 2000 to cushion the blow from the decline in revenue.

Most of the money has gone to six Western states ” Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Mississippi, Arkansas and other rural states also have received significant payments.

The timber law expired last year amid concerns about wartime budget constraints and complaints that the funding formula was too heavily tilted toward Oregon, a leading timber producer where more than half the land is owned by the federal government.

House leaders have included $425 million and a one-year extension of the law in their emergency spending bill on the Iraq war. A deal announced Tuesday by Senate Democrats would authorize about $2.8 billion to extend the law through 2011.

A deal remains tenuous. President Bush has threatened to veto the emergency spending bill because it also requires the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2008.

“In rural America, it is an emergency,” said Jim French, supervisor of the Trinity County Office of Education, which oversees 11 school districts spread over about 4,000 square miles.

To cope with the loss of $3.8 million, French is trying to cut support services such as printing rather than laying off teachers. He said it’s ironic that the cuts come as the federal government demands more of schools.

“Under the No Child Left Behind Act, every one of those kids is entitled to a world-class education. … We’ll be leaving every one of those children behind without the Forest Service money,” he said Tuesday.

Because the federal money is not part of California’s school funding formula, there is no mechanism to automatically boost state funding if the 38 affected counties lose it.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $69 million loan to the counties in his 2007-08 budget, but officials said they are wary of taking loans they might not be able to repay.

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