Hank Sims / Thursday, June 27 @ 6:53 a.m. / Education

A ‘Lifeline’ for California’s Rural Schools Is About to Expire. Why Is It Stalled in Congress?

The playground at Burnt Ranch Elementary School in Burnt Ranch on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo by Dave Woody for CalMatters

By Carolyn Jones


Rural schools in California already struggle with declining enrollment, staffing shortages and wildfires. Now they’re facing the possible loss of money they’ve relied on for more than a century.

The Secure Rural Schools program, which brings extra money to counties with large swaths of untaxable public land, faces an uncertain future in Congress as it awaits renewal. Despite bipartisan support, the program has yet to pass on its own or as part a larger funding bill. If it doesn’t pass, it will expire.

“This money is an absolute lifeline,” said Jaime Green, superintendent of Trinity Alps Unified in Trinity County, where more than 70% of the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. “If it doesn’t get renewed, thousands of people in rural communities will lose their jobs, thousands of children will be harmed. It’s mind boggling to me that we’re in this position.”

Since 1908, the federal government has compensated counties that have large tracts of U.S. Forest Service land, making up for lost tax revenue. The extra money goes toward schools, roads, public health and other services that ordinarily would be paid for through local property taxes or timber revenues. More than 700 counties nationwide, including 39 in California, receive funds. Last year, the amounts varied from $4.1 million in Siskiyou County to $30,000 in San Luis Obispo County. Even Los Angeles County got some – $1.4 million, thanks to the Angeles and Los Padres national forests. Overall, the program has doled out $2.4 billion nationwide over the past decade.

In its modern incarnation, the Secure Rural Schools program has to be reauthorized every three years. The most recent round of payments in May – $33.7 million for California – will be the last unless Congress votes to extend the program by Sept. 30.

“It doesn’t look like a lot of money on paper, but when you look at the communities it serves, it’s crucial,” said Kindra Britt, spokesperson for California County Superintendents, which advocates for superintendents who oversee the state’s 58 county offices of education. “Since 1908 this has been a safety net for rural schools and now it’s disintegrating.”

Rural school funding ‘not a red-blue issue’

The program used to be funded independently, but for the past 20 years or so it’s been attached to larger bills. Finding a home for the program has been a challenge. Earlier this year advocates tried to incorporate it into a defense bill, but that didn’t pan out. The House version of the bill is currently attached to the Farm Bill, but some say it’s a longshot it will stay there. Nonetheless, its sponsors continue to lobby for its survival.

“Everyone agrees this is a good program. This is not a red-blue issue,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of the School Superintendents Association in Washington, D.C. “But Congress has never been more polarized or unproductive, and it’s also an election year. This isn’t flashy, it’s a relatively small amount of money, and it’s just been hard getting it the attention it deserves.”

The legislators who sponsored the bills, Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, and Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado, did not answer questions about the bills, despite repeated attempts to reach them.

In the House, the bill is currently in the forestry subcommittee of the Committee on Agriculture, where it’s awaiting a hearing. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose district includes much of northeastern California, is hoping the program will pass in the Farm Bill, which legislators will likely vote on in September.

“As a supporter of the Secure Rural Schools program, Congressman LaMalfa worked to include an extension of the program in the House’s 2024 Farm Bill,” said Alexandra Lavy, a spokeswoman for LaMalfa. “This was one of many bipartisan initiatives included in the House’s bill, and Congressman LaMalfa will continue advocating that it remains in the final version of the bill.”

“Since 1908 this has been a safety net for rural schools and now it’s disintegrating.”
-- Kindra Britt, spokesperson for California County Superintendents

Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Democrat representing southwestern Washington, is a cosponsor of the bill. She said Congressional bickering should not threaten services as fundamental as education.

“Our rural schools didn’t cause the dysfunction in federally managed assets, and I refuse to let our children bear the consequences,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “The Secure Rural Schools program is an investment in the equality of our children’s opportunities, and I refuse to allow partisan politics to undermine it. Rural schools are already enduring painful cuts.”

Impact on rural students

Green, the Trinity Alps superintendent, has been to Washington, D.C., seven times to lobby for the program. He’s passionate about the issue because he remembers what happened in 2016, when the bill lapsed and his district lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The district had to cut back on basic building repairs, and the following year a mold outbreak forced the closure of the elementary and high school. Some students went to school in portables for nearly four years, until the mold could be removed.

Losing that money was gut-wrenching for the entire community, he said.

“Are you going to fix a roof or feed a kid?” Green said. “Those are the kinds of decisions we were forced to make.”

Bode Gower, who’ll be a senior this fall at Ukiah High School in Mendocino County, has also been to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the program. He worries that his school will lose popular extracurricular activities like Model United Nations and Native American Youth Club without the Secure Rural School funding. In rural areas, sports and clubs are especially important because there’s not much else for teenagers to do, he said.

“Are you going to fix a roof or feed a kid? Those are the kinds of decisions we were forced to make.”
-- Jaime Green, superintendent of Trinity Alps Unified in Trinity County

Gower even started a coalition of Northern California rural youth to advocate for school funding. The group has more than 70 members.

“Rural communities are often overlooked because we don’t have the ability to influence policy to the extent that urban areas do,” Gower said. “But we need to give rural youth a chance to succeed. These cuts directly impact young people in rural areas.”

Need for permanent funding source

Jeff Harris, superintendent of schools for Del Norte County, said the Secure Rural Schools program not only needs to be renewed, but needs to become permanent -- possibly endowed through a trust fund. It’s impractical to fight for its renewal every three years, and it’s impossible to budget for because the amount varies, sometimes greatly.

This year, Del Norte got $570,000 through the program. That would have been enough to hire a few teachers, but Harris was reluctant to spend the money on ongoing expenses because he didn’t know if it would be renewed. So he put it toward facilities.

“It’s frustrating, because we can’t plan anything year to year,” Harris said. “If the money was consistent, it’d be a game changer. It would go directly to kids.”

Like most rural communities in California, Del Norte has limited options for raising money. Approximately 80% of the county is public or tribal land, which means the county can’t collect property taxes on it. Home values are relatively low, so the property taxes the county does collect are low, as well. And things tend to be more expensive in rural areas. Construction costs are a third higher than in other areas, Harris estimated.

“We’re not a business, we can’t just raise prices,” Harris said. “We’re at the mercy of what the state and federal government give us. It shouldn’t be this political hot potato every three years -- it’s about educating kids.”


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