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Please help find money for our schools

by James Parsons

My schools need help. We need help because the funding mechanisms designed to support the schools in my small forest county no longer work.

Ninety-two percent of my county is Federal Forest Reserve. Since this property is not available for local taxation in support of schools, the government provided (in 1908) for a percentage of timber harvest receipts to be returned to the county for school support. That support has, however, been drastically reduced because of the debate over ecological issues.

My schools are caught in the middle of the debate. Environmentalists wish to limit the cutting of timber. The timber industry wishes to continue cutting. Legally and legislatively, they are at a stalemate for a solution to this dilemma, but this stalemate results in a halt to cutting. This means a halt to school funding.

Everyone agrees that this is unfair to the schools in forest areas. The environmentalists and timber industry, the Democrats and Republicans, agree that something should be done for the schools in these communities. But nothing is done.

– Relief was blocked. In the spring of 1998, the White House proposed funding for the schools in forest areas, regardless of environmental entanglement or timber harvest levels. The White House “decoupled” the schools from forest harvest. But “decoupling” was unacceptable to some, and the provisions in the budget that would have provided relief for schools were blocked.

In some fairness to all concerned, the issue is very complex, with implications for local economies, national industry, county governments, and schools. In some fairness to all concerned, the issue may require more study, discussion, compromise, and attention than can be provided on the short term.

But what about the schools? While this issue is debated, my schools are suffering. Teachers and instructional aides have been terminated. Busing, athletics and field trips have been eliminated. Maintenance and nursing services have been cut back. Since funding first fell off in the 1995-96 fiscal year, we have sought help at all levels of government but it is now clear that the issue must be resolved at the federal level. And the federal government has failed to act.

School representatives have discussed this issue at the national level for the past two years. Everyone we talk to agrees that it is a problem, that forest community schools need and deserve help. A few have tried to help, but nothing has yet been done. In the meantime, funding continues to decline, and we cut services to children.

– Temporary fix. My schools need help. It is time that some relief is provided. If all cannot agree on just how funding should be provided, then a temporary fix must be crafted. Legislation should provide for a one- to three-year period of funding for schools in forest areas while the complex debate runs its course. This, too, was recently proposed in Congress, but the Republican leadership would not allow it. Some evidently fear that, even though temporary, short-term funding could lead to “decoupling.”

It is not fair to the children in forest communities to suffer the neglect of their government while a stalemated debate continues year after year. It is the obligation of the federal government to provide the financial support it removed when the forest reserve system was first established. (The congressional leadership should be ashamed of their refusal to allow even a temporary remedy.) The longer it takes to fulfill that obligation, the more services and opportunities are lost to each child in forest communities. If a child does not learn to read in the second grade because the special attention he needed was not there, he cannot return to second grade two years later after school funding is restored. The loss to the child is permanent.

My schools need help. My children need help.

n James Parsons is the super-intendent of schools in Alpine County.

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