Rural schools look beyond the forest |

Rural schools look beyond the forest

Emma Garrard/Sierra Sun file photoThe Sierraville School has been closed for two years because of a lack of funding. Students now go to school in Loyalton. Sierra County could lose $1.8 million in federal funding, forcing students to be bused to Truckee.

A proposed federal bill seeks to renew funding commitments to rural counties to compensate for timber land the government took to create the National Forest System.

The money would fund schools, roads, and other public services.

House Republicans and Democrats have debated the Public Land Communities Transition Assistance Act of 2007, H.R. 3058, introduced by Democratic representatives in June.

The bill provides for a five-year funding solution to rural schools in a number of California counties that include Nevada, Placer and El Dorado. The bill also would provide full funding for the Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILT program, federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes on federal lands, which are not taxed, within their boundaries.

“There are very few instances where fees once imposed or raised are ever removed or lowered,” said Executive Chairman Mark Walsh of the Western Counties Alliance. “If the fees are going to be imposed, the revenue generated should go into a dedicated fund to be used only for these two critical programs in perpetuity.”

A spokesman for District 4 Rep. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) said Friday the area’s congressman supports funding the Secure Rural Schools Act, but opposes the bill introduced by the Democrats because it raises fees on public land users. Those subject to the fees could include grazers, miners, independent oil and gas prospectors, loggers, ATV or four-wheel drive enthusiasts, park users and boaters, according to Gordon Hinkle, Doolittle’s communications director.

The funding for rural schools used to be provided through timber revenues on public lands, Hinkle said, but those receipts have dropped 17 percent since 1989.

Hinkle said Doolittle worries that the Democrats’ proposed user fees are not clearly defined. Instead, Hinkle said Doolittle has previously proposed amendments and supported a resolution ” none of which have passed ” that would secure money for the program through permanent federal funding instead of raising fees.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, passed in 2000, previously authorized funding for beleaguered rural schools. The funding expired in September 2006, before Congress passed a one-year extension that runs out at the end of September.

As a result of the 2006 lapse in funding, the Plumas Sierra Joint Unified School District lost $950,000 in revenue, causing severe cutbacks in personnel, benefits and facilities, as well as closure of Pliocene Ridge School and its subsequent placement for sale.

In an e-mail, Doolittle explained the dire situation facing many school districts in counties that suffer from low property tax revenues.

“As an example from a county in my district, Plumas County School District receives roughly $2.5 million annually from this program, which represents 20 percent of their annual operating budget. Without this funding, the county is preparing to lay off nine administrators out of a total of 16, lay off 47 teachers out of a total of 150, close all school libraries, possibly close some or all cafeterias, and cut transportation activities,” Doolittle wrote.

Similarly, Doolittle indicated that Sierra County schools would have to lay off 15 teachers and administrators out of 40 total positions if the funding is not restored.

In a conciliatory move, the Western Counties Alliance, an organization representing counties with significant public land, has called on Congress to make the two programs permanent by setting up a dedicated savings account for the money.

The Alliance’s Walsh said new fees imposed by Congress rarely sunset or go away. Once a bill expires, the money collected for a program will be appropriated into some other fund.

The programs need constant oversight by Congress, Walsh asserted. He also contends that any money raised should be put into a dedicated account to be used only for that purpose.

Under the proposed Democratic formula, most states would be required to increase funding to rural schools. Eight states, including California, would be allowed to decrease funding by 10 percent beginning in year two and by the same amount each year after.

The bill also provides full funding of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, reauthorizing the federal subsidy for five more years.

If Congress approves H.R. 3058, it would give the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior the authority to increase public land use fees to fund the bill.

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