Schools brace for steep cut in timber program money

In the heart of Idaho’s timber country, federal dollars have helped the Cottonwood School District renovate school buildings and move out of an aging grade school.

“It’s money we used to keep our buildings functional, and keep them up,” Superintendent René Forsmann said.

Grangeville High School
Grangeville High School serves about 245 students in Idaho County’s Mountain View School District. In 2013-14, the district received $1.1 million through a federal program designed to help schools in timber country — but future payments are in jeopardy.

The district also used some of the feds’ money to give patrons a break on their property taxes — trimming the amount collected off a voter-approved supplemental levy.

Now, the Idaho County district’s $408,000-a-year federal payment could dwindle to $29,000. It’s too early to tell how this might affect building upkeep, or property tax bills.

Cottonwood isn’t alone. It is among a handful of Idaho districts that could be forced to scramble to replace dollars from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

Passed in 2000, the federal law is widely known as Craig-Wyden — for its architects, Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The idea was to replenish funds for roads and schools in timber country, replacing a decline in federal logging receipts.

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But when Congress passed a 2014-15 federal spending plan late last year — the “Cromnibus,” in Beltway jargon — the secure rural schools funding didn’t make the cut. For Idaho, a $28.3 million stipend for roads and schools could dwindle to $2 million.

Idaho schools received a $7.2 million share of the $28.3 million. Since the payments are based on historic timber receipts, the numbers varied widely. Twenty-seven districts didn’t get a dime. Another 31 districts received under $5,000; for the Melba School District in Canyon County, the share was $1.22.

But for several districts, the secure rural schools payments are a key ingredient in the budget.

Idaho County’s Mountain View School District — the state’s most sprawling district, at 8,300 square miles — received more than $1.1 million in 2013-14. The district’s overall budget is $16.8 million.

In Salmon, interim superintendent Jim Smith calls the funding cut a “shipwreck.” When the district found out its $474,000 share was in jeopardy, administrators froze all non-essential spending. The feds’ money was used largely to cover custodial and maintenance services and utilities, but in order to cover those expenses, Salmon may have to stretch teaching staff and increase class sizes.

Salmon’s options are limited. The district has had a supplemental levy on the books for a decade. Patrons also have to make bond payments on a state-mandated $3.6 million roofing project. “It’s not logical that we would go back to taxpayers for a third funding source,” Smith said.

Could the feds bail out the schools again?

Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are working with Wyden on “a number of ideas” to fund the program, Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said.

Rep. Raul Labrador also supports restored funding — as a stopgap, at least.

“The uncertainty of these annual funding battles must end, as county commissioners across Idaho and the West will attest,” Labrador spokesman Dan Popkey said. “Congress should empower local governments to generate revenue from the abundant resources in their backyards.”

In Cottonwood, Forsmann is watching closely. She’s hearing rumblings that Congress might restore 80 percent of program funding. She’s also waiting to see how the Legislature funds K-12 this year; districts should have a better answer by March. And come March, Forsmann and trustees will have to figure out how much to seek in a May supplemental levy — and how much the district would need to replace federal funding.

“In some way, shape or form, it’s going to have to be replaced,” Forsmann said.