Schools Stuck In Orphanage

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The Payson Unified School District seems trapped in some twisted Dickensonian tale — a waif in an orphanage beaten with a porridge spoon who must force a pained smile and say, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

Now, this may seem a churlish way to thank the federal government for a $368,000 payment, but consider the sequence.

Congressional budget staffers have been warning schools and counties for months that Congress would likely renege on a 100-year-old deal with rural schools and counties so that lawmakers could keep taxes for millionaires as low as possible and make a big show of spitting the pittance saved into the yawning pit of the federal deficit.

Ever since 1905, the federal government has been making these “forest fee” payments to schools and counties stuck with so much federal land that they just barely have a property tax base to fund public services. That certainly applies to Gila County, where Indian tribes or the federal government own 97 percent of the land.

The payments make perfect sense. Schools and counties depend heavily on property taxes. By keeping all that land off the tax rolls, the federal government effectively impoverishes those local governments.

Now, the Forest Service used to generate money through logging, mining and grazing. A century of mismanagement has dried up most of that revenue, in return for a dense, unhealthy, fire-prone forest.

The federal government could honor its commitments. It could even sell off federal land next door to landlocked communities — maybe revive the timber industry on a sustainable basis or quit virtually giving away mining rights. Instead, Congress warned local governments that it would likely eliminate the Forest Fees program altogether — starting this year.

So the already orphaned school district built that assumption into its budget, while struggling to meet the state-imposed deadlines for board action.

Ironically enough, those deadlines forced the district to lay off teachers and slash programs for next year’s budget long before the state will tell the district how much money it actually has left over from this year. All right — maybe that’s not ironic — it’s actually maddening.

As if the state’s backhanded blow wasn’t enough, Congress waited until the district had approved the layoffs and prepared its budget before it scrapped out a last spoonful of gruel.

In the meantime, teachers have lost their jobs and children have been shortchanged. But don’t get us wrong: We’re grateful for the help. Please, sir, can we have some more?

Hit by lightning

Wouldn’t you know it: We’ve been doing rain dances for months but when the monsoons finally come — we mostly get lightning.

So instead of drenching the forest, this week those storms we’ve yearned for, instead caused half a dozen fresh brush fires.

Well, heck. Leastwise we didn’t get hit by a lightning bolt watching the light show up on Airport Road. Guess that counts as lucky.

Turns out you’re a lot more likely to survive a lightning bolt than we figured — according to Wikipedia. Lightning does kill about 24,000 folks planet-wide every year — but that’s only about 10 percent of those struck. Then again, U.S. National Park Ranger Roy Sullivan has reportedly been hit by lightning eight times and lived to tell the tale. Granted, he lost one toenail and suffered assorted injuries. But he didn’t even change careers, which tells you something about the perks of park rangering — or maybe about the persistence of bureaucrats.

We’re told that lightning flashes over the body so fast it doesn’t have time to burn you — although it can stop your heart and mess you up pretty good if you’re wearing metal. Supposedly, iPods can complicate the path of a lightning bolt through your body. This does not surprise us: iPods have always seemed suspicious.

But not to worry: The odds you’ll get hit by lightning in the U.S. add up to about one in a million. The National Safety Council puts the odds of death by lightning at 1 in 135,000. That compares to a 1 in 321 chance someone’s gonna shoot you dead, a 1 in 98 chance you’ll die in a car crash and a 1 in 79,800 chance a bee will do you in.

Heck, you’ve got about the same odds of getting hit by lightning as a) The Forest Service selling land quickly; b) A politician admitting a mistake; or c) The Arizona Legislature taking over all the federal land in the state.

See? Don’t you feel better?

So come on up to Airport Road tonight for the rain dance. You’ll have a great time. We promise.

But please: Don’t bring your iPod.

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