How Rural Idaho Schools Are Coping With Deep Cuts To Timber Program Money
Skip Hall has been a teacher at Grangeville High School for 31 years. His early American history class with freshmen and sophomores will be one of his last: he’s retiring at the end of the school year.
As Hall’s class works together on projects, he takes a moment to reflect on the state of education in his district.
“The biggest thing I see is lack of choice for the students," Hall says.
Hall says kids in wealthy districts have more opportunities. His students are at a disadvantage – simply because of where they live. Grangeville High is in the Mountain View School District, a sprawling and sparsely populated part of Idaho County that goes from the Oregon border to the Montana border.
Most of that land is owned by the federal government – land that’s off the books.
“Eighty percent of Idaho County is non-taxable property and without Rural Schools, we would be forced to ask patrons to increase their taxes a whole lot to keep our schools at this level.”
Hall is talking about the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, or SRS. The funding program passed Congress in 2000, and was designed to help rural counties with a lot of federal land – counties like this one struggling from a shrinking timber industry.
But the last time Congress funded the act was in 2015, and those payments went out to schools in 2016.
No Easy Choices For Timber-Dependent Schools
And for district business manager Becky Hogg, that makes for some really difficult decisions.
“We’ve come to rely on it as a significant chunk of our operating budget,” says Hogg.
According to Hogg, the school district received SRS payments of about $1 million per year – the largest share of any district in the state. That’s about 10 percent of their budget. She says after careful planning, the district will have enough money to fund current teachers and classes through the coming fiscal year, but after that things could get dicey.
“We just feel like that we’re at a disadvantage from the Boise schools and the bigger schools," says Mountain View District Superintendent Kent Stokes. "And the Secure Rural School funds, that helps us fund those extra teachers that we have.”
Because of how spread out the district is, Stokes hires more teachers than the state will pay for under its funding formula. Whereas the federal SRS money helps pay for those teachers to work in small and remote places like Kooskia – about 40 miles down a winding mountain highway from the district office in Grangeville.
On a recent Friday, five high school students work on calculus problems at the Clearwater Junior/Senior High School. Their classroom is mostly just empty desks, and the small group of students sit together in the middle of the room as their teacher works with them.
Principal Randall Miskin says if SRS funding isn’t renewed, classes with low enrollment like this calculus course could disappear – and students would have to do more of their learning online.
“If we lose this funding, we probably will have to go back to where we’re offering one-class-fits all type things," says Miskin. "Which really does a disservice for kids in rural areas.”
The principal says the students he serves come from working-class families and their parents went straight to work in the timber industry after finishing high school. But now that way of life isn’t feasible.
“It is a cycle here. And so when the timber is going great – our schools are going to do great, our community is going to do great. But when the timber industry goes bottom up or it struggles – it really impacts us hard here.”
School secretary Cindy Dahler remembers when things were better.
“I’m actually fourth generation here in the valley. When I was here in high school – from the timber dollars we made, we were – I believe – one of the richest districts in the state.”
Dahler thinks if the forests would open to more logging, closed down lumber mills could return and the district wouldn’t need to depend on SRS money. She can’t help but get emotional when asked what it’s been like to watch her community struggle in recent years.
Local Levies And Hope For Funding Under Trump
Back at the district office in Grangeville, Superintendent Kent Stokes says absent a boost in federal funding or a change to logging policy – the community has had to raise their own money.
So in March, voters approved a one-year $2.6 million levy for the schools. But Stokes says he can’t assume voters will go for another funding boost the next time they’re asked.
“And we understand. Nobody wants to pay more property tax than what they do,” says Stokes.
There is some congressional support to reauthorize SRS, but the superintendent isn’t holding his breath.
“We have written letters to our senators and anybody who will actually listen I guess.”
He says there’s some new hope that a political solution can be found under President Trump. And since 78 percent of Idaho County voted for the Republican leader, that’s where most people here have placed their bets.
Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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