County Schools To Share $1.6 Million Forest Fee Money

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Payson and Pine schools, as well as schools in Tonto Basin and the rest of the county will get $1.6 million in forest fees money this year.

The money comes from the federal Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000. Because so much of the county is national forest, the rural schools act compensates for the unrealized revenue from the publicly held lands.

Payson’s allocation totals $435,296, the most of all the districts; Pine will get $86,533, with $9,660 set aside; Tonto Basin is slated to receive $87,812.

Previously the forest fees money was distributed through a formula that provided a base amount for all schools, plus additional funds reflecting the forest acreage within the boundaries of the school district and the number of students enrolled. The formula also included a “set-aside” for use by the county school superintendent’s office for services provided to schools and districts throughout the county.

During the past two months, Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell has met with school district and other officials to develop a new agreement for the distribution of funds.

The new formula does not separate out a specific amount for use by O’Dell’s office. The “set-aside” is for school districts to purchase services from the county superintendent’s office. As it is a proposed amount, the districts can opt out of that part of the agreement.

O’Dell, speaking at the March 15 meeting of the board of supervisors, said Payson Unified School District is opting out.

“They said the proposed amount ($48,593) would pay for a teacher,” O’Dell said.

Later, speaking to the Roundup, O’Dell said that amount is approximately a salary plus benefits.

In addition to Payson, the districts in Globe and Miami are also opting out. Tonto Basin School District officials are waiting to make a decision due to a change in its administration.

O’Dell’s documentation for her presentation to the supervisors shows that 19 percent of the land within the boundaries of the Payson district is publicly held; Pine’s district includes 10 percent forest lands; and the Tonto Basin district has 12 percent public lands. The district with the most federal land is Young, with 30 percent — it has 61 students enrolled. It will get $166,041.

The forest fee money coming to Gila County is $2.1 million. The act requires a portion of the money be used for improvements to the public lands or watersheds; another portion can be used for roads; and a third part goes to schools.

The county is earmarking $50,000 for roads; allocating $423,448 to the regional Resource Advisory Committee; with the balance of $1,643,792 going to the schools. The money for the schools is down from 2010, when the allocation was $1.8 million.

Gila County belongs to the Eastern Arizona Counties RAC, which also includes Apache, Graham, Greenlee and Navajo. Jacque Griffin is Gila County’s liaison with the RAC.

Briefly explaining the group’s work, O’Dell said each of the member counties contribute a portion of the forest fees money they receive to the RAC based on the percentage of publicly held lands within that county’s geographic boundaries.

The RAC then solicits grant applications for projects to improve the forests or watershed. It then prioritizes them and submits the proposals to the administrating forest official — the supervisor for the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest in this case.

Any government entity or individual can apply for a grant, Griffin said. For instance if the town’s Payson Area Trails System group wanted to make improvements to a trail on forest land that linked with a town trail, it could seek funds from the RAC. She also said individual ranchers have made application for projects to make forest or watershed improvements.

Since Gila County officials have a liaison with the RAC in Griffin, that means the county gets to review all the grant applications and weight them.

The application period for the 2011 money closed in February, she said.

This is the last year the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act was reauthorized. It is not known if there will be additional money available in the future.

The outcome of meetings discussing the extension of the act between county officials and Arizona’s congressional delegation and others has not been hopeful, according to Supervisor Shirley Dawson and Board Chairman Mike Pastor at the March 15 supervisors meeting.

“The forest fees money is more critical than ever to our small districts,” O’Dell said in an interview with the Roundup.

The Payson school district has included the money in its budgeting, according to Bobette Sylvester, assistant superintendent for business services.

She said the money has been received and will be used to continue programs and pay for staff, as it has been used in the past.

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