Federal lawmakers are pushing to bankroll the Secure Rural Schools Act before Congress gavels out for the year. That money can be a lifeline for districts across our region that are surrounded by untaxable public land.
Chris Born is the superintendent in Salmon, Idaho — it’s a sprawling rural district where the federal government owns more than 90 percent of land in the county.
For Born, the Secure Rural Schools Act – or SRS – is crucial for districts like his that can’t rely on local property taxes to pad school budgets.
Salmon School District used to use that money for its operating budget, he says. But when Born became superintendent, he moved that money into paying for one-time capital projects.
“Three years ago, I put all new plumbing in my elementary school because the water wasn’t drinkable.”
This year, about $400,000 in federal funding helped repair the roof of Salmon High School without needing to go to voters with a supplemental levy.
“That’s always nice when I don’t have to plan on an election to get a new roof to keep my high school dry,” Born says.
But that funding is about to run out. Senators from Idaho, Colorado and Montana have signed on to a letter urging leaders in both parties to include money for SRS before the end of the year.
However, earmarking that cash isn’t a slam dunk. Most recently, Congress did not fund the program between 2016 and 2018.
This past year, Idaho received the most money from the Secure Rural Schools program at $23.4 million. Montana received $15.1 million, Colorado took in $11.6 million, Utah got $9.3 million and Wyoming earned $4.8 million.
If nothing is done, the last payments to school districts will trickle in early next year. Born says if there’s any left over money after the roof is repaired, he’ll stash it away to spend on smaller maintenance projects while he and other superintendents like him wait for Congress to act.