Multi-Million Dollar Pot Has Educators Beaming

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With millions of dollars at stake, local education officials are eyeing a gleaming pot of gold in a potato-famine era.

With fierce cuts to education a possibility after legislators convene in January, an unprecedented $2.1 million for schools countywide from the federal Secure Rural Schools program, also expected in January, could compensate for other losses.

Last year, county Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell divvied the comparably small $312,000 by how much federal land each district had within its boundaries.

This year, Payson school officials are asking the county supervisors to divide the money based on enrollment.

The Secure Rural Schools program nearly died last year, but October’s bailout bill fully funded the compensation plan for states with vast national forests.

Counties receive the money through the state, and can then either directly allocate the funds to schools or, in Arizona’s case, to the county superintendent of schools.

Under the old formula, Payson, which educates nearly 34 percent of the county’s total students and has the largest single enrollment of any district, received $11.40 per student, or a total of $28,215.

By comparison, Young received roughly $781 for each of its 57 students for a total of $44,550, which represented the highest perstudent funding based on O’Dell’s formula.

Pine Strawberry received $14,850, or roughly $89 per student.

The schools within the Gila County Regional School District, which O’Dell runs, received $17,226, or about $165 per student.

Of last year’s remaining rural schools money, O’Dell used $15,630 to open Payson’s new county schools office on Beeline Highway.

Another $131,275 funded the county schools office, from where O’Dell said she can offer professional development or purchase new software that benefits all schools in the county.

How much of that money O’Dell has spent was unavailable by press time. However, she added that she likes to save the funds for emergencies.

All told, she earmarked $164,100 for purposes related to her office. Essentially, of the $312,600, O’Dell used 5 percent off the top to open her new Payson headquarters. Of the remainder, half funded school districts based on the percentage of national forests inside, and O’Dell divided the other half proportionately to run her office and the alternative schools she established in Payson and Globe.

This year, the county has not decided whom it will entrust with dividing the money or what formula to use.

Supervisor Tommie Martin said she is waiting until the county actually receives the money, and also to see how badly K-12 education will fare in what will likely be ferocious budget cuts in January.

Still unclear, however, is whether the state will cut education funding with the knowledge that counties can make up for it with the federal funds.

Outgoing Gov. Janet Napolitano, who will resign to lead the Department of Homeland Security, worked to ensure education funding remained largely intact, Martin said.

Incoming governor and now-Secretary of State Jan Brewer’s philosophy on education funding remains to be seen.

The Arizona Legislature has already demonstrated its willingness to demand money from towns, cities and counties to offset its budget crisis, which is one of the nation’s worst.

The state asked for the return of $725,000 from Gila County, $75,000 from Payson and $10,000 from Star Valley to balance its budget.

The League of Arizona Cities and Towns has sued the state, alleging that the command was unconstitutional.

Martin said she has been urging the counties’ association to see if future bailouts can be avoided, but since counties are essentially money conduits and have little autonomy, their ability to wage a battle remains unclear.

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