Wed March 16, 2011
Government and You

Rural Western Schools Brace for Hard Times

Governor John Hickenlooper is proposing to cut more than $300 million from the state's education budget.  This would hit Colorado's isolated, rural school districts especially hard. 

That’s because during lean budget years like these, many small schools rely heavily on federal money to fund everything from building maintenance to teacher salaries.  But the future of a program that sends cash-payouts to rural counties with large amounts of public lands is in limbo.

There are just 120 kids – kindergarten through 12th grade - at Mountain Valley School in tiny Saguache, Colorado, and Evonne Morfitt teaches many of them, whether in her life-skills class, her high school history class, or middle school science.

"One teacher has to wear so many hats." Morfitt says. "It gets kind of stressful to go from one different subject every hour to the next."

This is the reality of small, isolated schools like this.  Even in good years, funding is tight, because there just isn’t much of a tax base here.  Saguache county only has 6,000 people.  And almost ¾ of its total land is owned by the federal government.

"Around here, there’s nothing to tax,  you can’t really tax a tree," says school superintendent Corey Doss.

So Doss says money from the federal Secure Rural Schools program is crucial.  The federal government pays counties in 41 states to offset the fact that they can’t bring in property tax revenue from public lands.  The practice is more than a hundred years old, and has come in different forms.  In 2000, Secure Rural Schools was passed to help counties deal with a sharp decline in revenue due to a drop in logging.

"I’m going to stop right here and let you see exactly what Secure Rural Schools funding helped us with," Doss says, on a tour of the school.

When he took over three years ago, Corey Doss says everyone warned him the school’s roof couldn’t handle a big snowfall.

"This is a brand new roof, this building was built in 1963 I believe," he says.

Unlike most federal and state money, there are no strings attached to these Secure Rural Schools funds.  So they can pay for new roofs, or lately to offset state budget cuts coming down from Denver. 

Filling the Gap

This year Colorado schools are bracing for even deeper cuts as state lawmakers try to fill a billion dollar budget short fall. That means more salary freezes. It also means kids have to keep using the same old computers.

President Obama’s budget proposal calls for Secure Rural Schools and a companion funding program to continue, but at more modest funding levels.  It still needs to pass the sharply divided Congress though. 

"First of all, given the tough fiscal times we’re in, we really respect the fact that the President recognized what’s going on with rural forested communities and schools and put us in the budget period," says Marc Kelley, a consultant with the California-based Partnership for Rural America, which is pushing for the rural funds to get extended. 

Kelley says counties need a long term and stable funding source. 

Competing for Limited Funds

Take Colorado’s Saguache County which will get about $3.5 million this year.  Battles over limited dollars often pit the upkeep of roads and bridges against teacher salaries and textbooks for students.

County Commission Chairman Sam Pace says some of the Secure Rural Schools funds simply have to go to keeping infrastructure sound.

"The county and local governments, they get saddled with so much of the services that need to be provided when the country goes into a downturn," Pace says, from his home in Crestone.

With the downturn, and the new deficit-minded Congress, extending the federal funds will be a tough sell.  The program is set to expire in October. 

"So the question is, is the rest of the country going to have the stomach to fund this program, when a lot of other programs are going to be receiving cuts or even on the table for elimination," says economist Mark Haggerty of the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics.

But Haggerty says debate over the program’s future poses a good opportunity for reforms.  He says the limited money should go to rural counties that need it most.

"Which means in Colorado, for example, maybe taking some funding away from Boulder County and Douglas County, and some of the ski resorts up in the mountains and directing it more to rural places in south central and the west slope," he says.

That would certainly help schools like Mountain Valley back in Saguache, where music class and arts programs are on the chopping block. 

Superintendent Corey Doss says he’s forced to budget as if Secure Rural Schools won’t be there next year. 

"We’re getting down to an almost skeletal structure budget wise," he says.

Doss says he’s doing all he can to prevent laying off staff, but he says that’s probably unavoidable too in the coming year.

See Headwaters Economics' county by county breakdown of federal cash payouts to counties in this interactive map.