Plans For Schools’ Forest Funds Create Confusion

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The feeding frenzy began last week when $1.98 million in federal money for schools countywide landed precisely in the squalor of declining budgets and hoped-for overrides.

The so-called forest fees from the Secure Rural Schools Act are meant to compensate counties with vast amounts of national forest for lost property tax revenue.

Although most of the money funds schools, additional money goes to forest-related projects and roads.

In the final proposal, most districts took a cut from last year’s allotment with the exception of Young, mostly because the formula changed. However, less money was available overall.

Payson received $480,000 this year, which was $61,000 less than last year. Pine received $94,000, or roughly $5,000 less than last year.

This year’s formula placed more emphasis on the amount of national forest in any given school district, and less on enrollment. Consequently, Young, the most heavily forested district, saw an increase in funding by $6,000 to $183,000.

The larger districts, like Payson, fought for the formula to weigh enrollment more heavily.

But that isn’t what caused this year’s drama. First, district superintendents didn’t receive the first proposal, formulated by county schools Superintendent Linda O’Dell, until Sunday night or Monday morning.

O’Dell’s first proposal decreased the allotment of every school in the county except her own. She wanted to keep her portion at $200,000.

Then Payson school district Superintendent Casey O’Brien spoke at the meeting, broadcast through interactive television at the local supervisor’s office, advocating a second proposal crafted by Deputy County Manager John Nelson.

The other superintendents, sitting in Globe, hadn’t seen that proposal.

“It was a surprise,” said Tonto Basin Superintendent Johnny Ketchem. “I didn’t know what plan he was talking about.”

Nelson’s plan imposed cuts equally on all the districts and the county schools office, and supervisors eventually adopted that plan. Nelson said he based his plan on O’Dell’s plan, and that he subsequently showed her the plan, to which she agreed.

The 2008 federal bailout fully funded forest fee legislation through fiscal year 2011, with the amount of money received declining slightly each year. Before the bailout, the county schools superintendent quietly distributed the few hundred thousand dollars received with little fuss.

Now, with the amount of money drastically increased, and school finances increasingly uncertain, the contention surrounding the formula used has intensified.

“As the pie gets sweeter, everybody wants a different slice,” quipped Nelson on Tuesday.

Last year’s agreement of how to disburse the money caused so much contention that this year, O’Dell didn’t meet with the superintendents, instead forging ahead to create her own proposal.

She told supervisors Tuesday that she had a good sense of each superintendent’s feelings, and she allowed those sentiments to guide her formulation. “I vetted this in my own mind,” she said, admitting, “It has not properly been vetted to other school superintendents.”

Supervisor Shirley Dawson was not satisfied. “It’s not fun to have contention, but sometimes that’s what your job involves.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien said last year’s money saved 12 teaching positions in the Payson school district, and three other staff positions. Pine spent almost $20,000 on security cameras, replaced a van that had 250,000 miles on it, purchased textbooks, and upgraded the school’s electrical system. The school spent $131,000, although it received just $99,000. Pine School Superintendent Mike Clark said the school had carryover.

The money is “extremely important to us, especially with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next school year,” said Clark.

Tonto Basin overspent its budget, using $50,000 to help construct the new Little Red School House, and another $150,000 for a new administration office, among other things.

The county schools office spent roughly $148,000 of its $200,000 worth of forest funds, paying $10,000 for a consultant to help the Globe and Miami school districts on a proposed district consolidation ballot measure. It spent $3,400 on silkscreened backpacks and food for post secondary education fair in southern Gila County, $21,800 for technology support, mostly for smaller school districts, and $18,000 to maintain and lease rooms for professional development training. Another $13,000 paid for technology for professional development.

O’Dell said the smaller school districts typically use her services more than the larger ones. For instance, her office used $30,000 of forest fee funds to pay for a school resource officer in Tonto Basin, Pine and Young after the state cut their funding. Ketchem said his teachers are also receiving training from O’Dell’s office.

Local school districts can certainly use the money, but the county is legally required to reserve some for roads.

This year, it took just 2.5 percent, or $50,000, as opposed to last year when it took 5 percent.

Nelson said he isn’t sure if that’s legal. Should the federal government decide 2.5 percent is too little, Nelson said he’d return to supervisors to revamp the allotments.

Meanwhile, the pot of money will continue to decrease, and the allotments could change again.

Like Ketchem said, “There’s always next year.”

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