Analysis: Uncle Sam helps rural Idaho schools — but only to a limited degree

Built in 1954, Cottonwood’s school gymnasium has an aging entryway and single-stall restrooms.

An $855,000 upgrade is part of the district’s five- to 10-year plan. Cottonwood could use a federal program to help get the job done. Superintendent Jon Rehder says it’s the best way, and basically the only way, to use the federal funding.

“I consider it soft money, because you never know what the federal government is going to do,” Rehder said Wednesday.

Cottonwood and other rural school districts got some good news earlier this week. They could share close to $7 million from Secure Rural Schools, a federal program designed to support timber communities.

But the help is limited.

For one thing, Idaho’s share of the money is decreasing this year, however, by about 7%. That is evidently a result of the feds’ formula. When per-capita income increases, as was the case across much of the state, the feds payments decrease.

For another thing, Secure Rural Schools remains on tenuous footing, nearly a quarter century after its creation. And as a result, educators say the federal program doesn’t eliminate the need for local, voter-approved school taxes.

Launched in 2000 — and co-authored by then Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho — Secure Rural Schools was designed to offset the declining revenues from federal timber sales. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since 70% of the money goes to counties for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.

The schools money goes to districts that have been carved out amidst the conifers that cover much of central and North Idaho.

The payments are based on federal forest acreage within a school district, and the 2022-23 figures vary widely. Twenty-seven districts didn’t get a dime. Canyon County’s rural Melba district received 84 cents.

But the Mountain View School District — perennially the state’s biggest Secure Rural Schools recipient — again collected more than $1 million. Cottonwood, Kellogg and McCall-Donnelly received more than $400,000 apiece. The Salmon School District received close to $350,000.

Two of these districts have long struggled to raise money at the local level.

  • In Idaho County, Mountain View voters have rejected four successive supplemental levy proposals, most recently in November. Sprawling and brawling, Mountain View is a district divided, with many locals pushing for deconsolidation and voting to block levies. A two-year, $5.9 million request is on the May 21 ballot. If this levy fails, district leaders say they might be forced to close a pair of schools.
  • Salmon has an even longer history of frustrations at the polls. Since 2006, Lemhi County voters have rejected a dozen school bond proposals. That earned Salmon the dubious distinction of getting a mention in Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address in January, although the governor stopped short of naming Salmon directly. “In one school I visited, raw sewage is seeping into a space under the cafeteria.” Salmon will again run a bond issue in May, seeking $20 million.

It’s no surprise that these districts have run into so much resistance at the ballot box. Beyond the other variables — such as the deep divisions within Mountain View and the two-thirds supermajority requirement for bond issues — there sits an underlying, harsh economic reality. Because rural districts tend to have small tax bases, it’s more difficult for school leaders to garner community support for a levy or a bond.

Secure Rural Schools was designed to address this, in some limited way. The federal payments are designed to offset declining timber receipts — and allow communities to reap some revenue from public lands that do not generate property taxes.

But not unlike the communities it is designed to serve, Secure Rural Schools has been living hand-to-mouth for years. The issue came to a head in 2017, when Congress refused to fund Secure Rural Schools, and instead only distributed money from timber sales. The result was about a 90% reduction in program funding; in Cottonwood, for example, payments dwindled to $23,000.

Since then, the Idaho and Oregon congressional delegations have searched for a long-term funding solution. At one point, they floated the idea of creating a $7.1 billion Secure Rural Schools endowment. Now, senators from Idaho and Oregon are making a bipartisan push to extend the program for another three years.

“We cannot continue to rely on the yearly votes in Congress to provide reliable funding for schools, roads and infrastructure repair,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. “It is imperative we reach agreement on a self-contained funding mechanism.”

After the short-lived 2017 federal budget cut, Cottonwood’s Secure Rural Schools payments quickly rebounded to about $300,000, and have consistently grown ever since. But Cottonwood isn’t about to change its approach. Cottonwood has refused to put any timber money toward the ongoing personnel costs that make up the bulk of its $9 million budget.

McCall-Donnelly has taken on a similar approach. It doesn’t use Secure Rural Schools money for salaries, focusing instead on maintenance and, sometimes, staff insurance benefits. The feds’ money supplements an $18 million district budget, but only to a point, Superintendent Eric Pingrey said Thursday. “There’s a much bigger need in the state than just what forest funds will do.”

On May 21, rural districts will take their case to the voters.

McCall-Donnelly will seek a $14 million bond issue for employee housing and a two-year, $1.3 million supplemental levy — its first in 30 years. Cottonwood will seek a one-year, $175,000 supplemental levy.

And Salmon and Mountain View will be back before voters, one more time.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.


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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