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How Will Trump's Budget Address a Rural Ed. Program With Bipartisan Support?

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There's been a lot of speculation in the K-12 policy world about how President Donald Trump will handle education issues in rural America, where he won overwhelming support in the 2016 election. One part of the puzzle could be how he decides to deal with the the Secure Rural Schools program.

The program is designed to provide additional support for schools and local governments affected by activities on federal lands and is linked to revenue from timber harvests on those lands. Before 2000, school districts and counties got a fixed percentage of this revenue, but as this timber-related revenue declined, local governments' share of the money declined accordingly. In 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and changed the way these payments were structured.

Secure Rural Schools impacts 4,400 schools and 9 million students in 775 districts. The program is controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The program received $278 million in federal cash in fiscal year 2015, but the funding dropped to $58 million in fiscal 2016. A half-dozen years ago, in fiscal 2011, U.S. Forest Service payments to localities (including districts) topped $300 million. The single biggest state beneficiary of the program, you may not be surprised to hear, has historically been Oregon, with California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington also receiving relatively large payments. 

"If you're a Republican, my message is, these are the people who voted for you. These are the people who put the current administration in power. You can't turn your back on them," said Kermith Walters, the superintendent of the Siskiyou County Office of Education in northern California, who's been lobbying federal lawmakers this week to boost funding for the program. Walters' office oversees 28 schools with about 5,800 students; there are also four individual districts under his county office. 

Trump's initial proposed budget for fiscal 2018 doesn't mention Secure Rural Schools, and it will likely be several more weeks before his administration releases a fully fleshed-out budget that addresses the program. 

In fiscal 2016, Walters' county education office received $272,000 from the rural schools program out of a budget of roughly $16 million, although he notes that much of his overall budget is restricted in what it can be used for. 

In Siskiyou County schools, that money has supported everything from outdoor education camps to school nurses. Walters says that he's socked away rainy-day funds and that the reductions in Secure Rural Schools money therefore hasn't had a huge impact on his district. But if the money continues shrinking or goes away, he said, he'll have to start looking at laying off nurses and cutting off health services and other programs. 

"This is a program that's actually bipartisan that we can get behind," Walters said, noting that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have been particular champions of Secure Rural Schools. 

In February, Hatch and Wyden, along with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., wrote to the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney urging the Trump administration to provide "adequate funding" for Secure Rural Schools. They noted that the program has not been authorized since fiscal 2015, even though it's been funded since then. 

"Without SRS, existing revenue-sharing payments are not sufficient to support the services these counties must provide, and counties are forced to choose between critical services for their citizens," the four members of Congress wrote to Mulvaney. "Prevailing uncertainties about SRS make it nearly impossible for local governments to plan their annual budgets."

Photo: Mount Shasta looms over the remains of defunct lumber company in McCloud, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP-File)


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