A ‘moral obligation:’ Idaho, Oregon speakers rally for Secure Rural Schools endowment

Brian Hunicke came from Idaho City to the Statehouse Thursday, along with a busload of kids on a field trip.

Then the Basin School District superintendent made a pitch for funding. Like other schools in timber country, Basin gets a share of money from the federal Secure Rural Schools program. But the funding is hit or miss, so Hunicke only uses it for one-time expenses, such as field trips.

Brian Hunicke, superintendent of the Basin School District in Idaho City.

“We don’t plan on it, because we don’t know for sure,” he said.

Hunicke joined a dozen speakers taking turns touting a bipartisan bill to create a long-term Secure Rural Schools endowment. Standing beside Basin’s bus, the speakers said it’s past time for a permanent offset for federal forest lands, which provide no property tax dollars for counties or schools.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, called it nothing less than a moral obligation.

“This has got to be paid,” he said. “You pay your bills first.”

The Secure Rural Schools program has provided close to a half a billion dollars for Idaho, but the program expired last year.

The endowment carries a $7 billion price tag. But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said this sum is comparable to the amount of money the feds have put into the Rural Schools Program since its passage in 2000.

“And it is one and done,” Wyden said of the endowment.

Bipartisanship was a watchword at Thursday’s rally.

Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., are co-sponsoring the endowment bill with Risch and Wyden. This approach is consistent with the roots of the program: Wyden worked with then-Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, on the 2000 law.

Asked about the prospects for a long-term $7 billion endowment, Crapo noted that senators from Idaho and Oregon worked together to pass a law to keep the U.S. Forest Service from “borrowing” fire prevention funds to pay for firefighting.

“We’ve got a track record here,” Crapo said.

Still, Crapo and Wyden said they will pursue short-term funding while continuing to work on the endowment bill.

That last infusion of short-term funding came earlier this year, as Congress freed up the 2018 Secure Rural Schools payment. Idaho schools received about $6 million. Basin received $83,000.

In the past, Basin has used its federal funding to launch a pre-kindergarten program. As those first pre-K students are now finishing high school, the district is seeing the dividends, in the form of higher college enrollment rates, Hunicke said.

These days, the money goes for more modest endeavors: clearing snow off roofs, paying utility bills or covering school athletics. But if Hunicke could count on the feds’ money every year, he says it would create options for a district operating on a $3 million budget.

“For us, this would be huge,” he said.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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