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Some Surprised by Extension of Secure Rural Schools Act in Helium Bill

A temporary, $329 million one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Program for timber-rich counties has been approved, but rural schools still will see a cut in their funding.

The money for rural schools, roads, and law enforcement was included in an unexpected piece of legislation—the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which primarily aimed to address a helium shortage. More than 4,400 schools will receive payments from the Secure Rural Schools program extension.

Secure Rural Schools has given rural communities in national forest areas federal money to compensate for revenue lost because of restrictions on harvesting timber. The program expired in 2006 but has been extended multiple times since then at reduced levels. The legislation has been expired since last year.

President Barack Obama signed the bill earlier this month, but some rural counties were surprised by the deal and are just getting the news that they will see an influx of cash. One rural California school superintendent said in a story in the Plumas County News the money hadn't been included in the district's budget, but getting those funds would be a boost.

It's a different story in Oregon, which receives the lion's share of the Secure Rural Schools funding, and some officials are saying the money is a fraction of what schools in that state need. The bill will bring about $100 million to the state this year, compared to about $250 million just five years ago.

An Associated Press story credited Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., with helping ensure the payments continued this year by adding the one-year extension to the helium bill.

A more controversial, long-term funding solution for rural counties still is in the works. The Healthy Forests bill passed the House on Sept. 20 and is waiting action in the Senate. That legislation would have extended Secure Rural Schools funding for another year, but it also would change rules around federal forest management and produce more timber revenue.

Obama has threatened to veto that bill, but the proposal has the backing of the National Education Association, in part because it would provide rural schools with a dependable source of funding.

"While the helium bill serves as a lifeline, the Healthy Forests bill extends (Secure Rural Schools) payments as a bridge to a longer-term solution," said Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, in an e-mail to the Rural Ed blog.

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