Politics And Apologies

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Just when we had a heartening bit of good news in the form of a $2.1-million bailout windfall for local schools, county officials have raised a disquieting possibility.

County officials say they’ll hold off on figuring out how to hand out money included in the financial industry bailout bill — until they see what the state is going to do with its bleak budget. The money in question comes from a provision stuck into the Wall Street bailout bill to round up a few more votes. That provision fully funded a long, languishing program to help out school districts marooned in a sea of non-taxpaying federal land.

Gila County’s share of the bailout sweetener came to $2.1 million.

In the past, Congress placed just a pittance in that fund to help out those property-tax-starved rural districts. Last year, for instance, Gila County got about $312,000 — hardly enough when spread among all the districts in the county. The feds own 96 percent of the land in the county.

The money trickles down to those districts like water through hard-packed soil. First it goes to the state, then it goes to the county — which decides how to dole it out. The Gila County supervisors turned it over to the county schools superintendent, who came up with a formula to then disburse it to the school districts.

In Gila County, the county schools superintendent opted to use half of the money in her office and disburse the rest to districts based on the percentage of federal land within the district’s boundaries.

We wrote about this process in this space on Tuesday.

Regretfully, we upset County Schools Superintendent Linda O’Dell with some loose language.

Specifically, we said that the county schools “swiped” half of the money — and suggested this time around the county should distribute it based on enrollment.

Superintendent O’Dell took offense, saying we had accused her of doing something improper — based on the dictionary definition of “swiped.”

She has a good point.

For the record, we didn’t mean to imply any improper or underhanded or illegal conduct on the part of the county schools office — either on the part of O’Dell’s predecessor who first developed the formula or on her part in retaining the same formula.

Obviously, the county supervisors gave the superintendent responsibility for spreading the money around and O’Dell acted entirely within the law.

Moreover, we didn’t talk directly to her on deadline about how the county schools spent its 50-percent share of the money last year. We should have. Most of that money either went to fund county services available to all the districts or into a reserve fund. Only a bit of it went to fund the county’s two alternative schools, with an enrollment of about 100 kids who had trouble in regular schools.

O’Dell makes the strong point the money that went to the county schools potentially benefited all of the districts.

So we regret any implication that O’Dell or her predecessor did anything even faintly illegal.

Of course, we still think it’s an awful idea for the county schools office to take half the money. That money should get as close to the classroom as possible, instead of evaporating into assorted support services two or three levels up the bureaucratic chain.

Last year, the county schools office kept $164,000 and designated $131,275 of that for its offices and services. It spent $17,226 on its two alternative schools — about $165 per student. Another $15,630 went for its new offices.

So we hope that the board of supervisors will divide the money this time in a different way.

Beyond the issue of the county schools’ cut, we’re torn about the formula. Last year’s formula created a list of winners and losers. Payson, with 34 percent of the students got $11.40 per student. The tiny Young district ended up with $781 for each of its 57 students, while the Pine/Strawberry district got about $89 per student.

So someone will have to do the Solomon’s baby routine in deciding how to cut up the $2.1 million.

Of course, that’s assuming the state doesn’t pick the pockets of the school districts and glom onto their little windfall to balance its own woeful budget.

We’d say we’re afraid they’ll swipe that money.

But then, you gotta be careful with words.

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