With federal funding chopped, budget cuts hit timber country

About three months ago, Wallace school Superintendent Bob Ranells attended a town hall meeting with 1st Congressional District Rep. Raul Labrador.

The ongoing topic of school funding came up. Labrador told Ranells not to worry; it may take until the end of the congressional calendar, but he said lawmakers would restore federal money for schools.

Ranells is worried anyway. He hopes Congress comes through, but he also says it will take a “miracle.”

Without an infusion of federal dollars, Wallace and other Idaho school districts will be hard-pressed to keep up with building maintenance and other needs.

An insecure funding source

The federal government’s Secure Rural Schools program has proven to be anything but secure.

Co-authored by former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the 2000 Secure Rural Schools law was designed to provide a funding stopgap for communities in timber country. The idea is to replace the money counties and school districts used to receive from timber sales on federal lands.

The program has survived challenges on Capitol Hill before, and for more than a decade, it has delivered dollars to cash-strapped communities, largely in the West. In 2014-15, Secure Rural Schools was a $251 million program nationally; Idaho counties and schools received nearly $26 million, with $6.6 million for schools.

Congress stopped funding the Secure Rural Schools program in 2016-17. schools and counties received a smaller chunk of federal funding, based on proceeds from federal timber sales. But this was hardly a replacement; Idaho schools received $659,000, roughly a tenth of the money that came in 2015-16. (Click here to see what your district received in 2015-16 and 2016-17.)

For the handful of timber-rich school districts that depend most on Secure Rural Schools money, this funding cut has been deep.

In Ranells’ Wallace School District, the feds’ payments fell from $210,000 to $32,000.

In Central Idaho’s Salmon School District, the payments fell from $403,000 to $10,000.

‘We’re planning for the worst’

Not too far from Wallace, the Kellogg School District used to receive $700,000 a year in Secure Rural Schools funding. That fell to $406,000 in 2015-16 and plummeted to $63,000 this year.

Years ago, Kellogg stopped using Secure Rural Schools money for teacher salaries and benefits. The district decided to put the money into one-time capital costs: replacing aging buses, buying hardware to support classroom technology and building maintenance.

Kellogg still has enough Secure Rural Schools money on hand for one pending building project. The district will move out of a middle school that opened in 1970. The school, with a capacity of 800 students, has an enrollment of 265. The school wasn’t built with energy efficiency in mind, and in the middle of a long North Idaho winter, heating costs can hit $9,000 a month.

“It’s seen its useful life,” Superintendent Woody Woodford said.

Kellogg will use Secure Rural Schools dollars to move the middle schoolers into a converted elementary school. But in the meantime, other building projects have gone wanting, leaving Woodford in a bind.

Like many Idaho school districts, Kellogg relies on a supplemental property tax levy to backfill the budget. The current $2.6 million-a-year levy accounts for about a third of the annual operating budget.

Kellogg can’t go without the supplemental levy, Woodford said, so the district will go back to voters in November to ask for a two-year renewal.

If that passes, Kellogg will likely follow up in March 2018 with a $5 million plant facilities levy. Woodford is aware of the numbers. A $5 million levy would mean $50 to $60 in annual taxes on $100,000 of property. The last time Kellogg ran a plant facilities levy, in 2013, the proposal failed, receiving only 40 percent support.

But the fact that Woodford is talking about another plant facilities levy says something about the future of the Secure Rural Schools program.

“We’re hoping for the best but we’re planning for the worst,” he said.

Help from Congress?

President Trump’s 2017-18 budget proposal does not include Secure Rural Schools funding. But overall, the White House’s budget appears to be dead on arrival; even fellow Republicans have criticized the plan.

Does that leave an opening for Congress to save Secure Rural Schools — again?

Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch hope so.

The Idaho Republicans are part of a bipartisan Senate coalition pushing for a Secure Rural Schools reauthorization bill. The Senate bill also includes retroactive payments, reversing this year’s funding cuts.

Sen. Mike Crapo

“Congress needs to permanently address SRS to ensure that Idaho counties are not left in annual limbo,” Crapo said in a guest opinion last week.

But there is no guarantee Congress will permanently address the program, at least before the 2017-18 federal budget year begins on Oct. 1. Instead of adopting the Trump budget proposal — or crafting an alternative spending plan of their own — Congress could simply pass a “continuing resolution” that leaves the current budget structure in place. And this would leave Secure Rural Schools in public policy purgatory for another year.

‘At least it’s being discussed’

In the face of this year’s funding cut — and an uncertain future — schools in Idaho’s timber country have already been forced to make adjustments.

In Wallace, Ranells put a school bus purchase on hold. In the McCall-Donnelly School District, Superintendent Jim Foudy is focusing limited Secure Rural Schools dollars on top priority construction projects, such as a new roof at the high school and repaving an aging parking lot. The Lake Pend Oreille School District boosted its supplemental property tax levy to make up for lost federal dollars, Superintendent Shawn Woodward said; in March, voters passed a two-year, $17 million levy.

While administrators make adjustments locally, they also know that the fate of the Secure Rural Schools program is out of their hands. Its future will be decided more than 2,000 miles away — by elected officials who may not understand the plight of rural communities, or the fire risk that comes when federal forest lands are choked with trees.

“We’re not asking for a handout. We truly are not,” Woodford said. “It doesn’t have to be a welfare program.”

Ranells isn’t sure what to expect, but he is relieved to see Secure Rural Schools on the political radar, again.

“At least it’s being discussed,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”