Rural counties lose federal funds

Times Staff Writer

Congress went home this weekend without extending a program that sends $69 million annually to rural forested counties in California, raising the specter of school closings and layoffs in the coming year.

Although the counties will receive a final check under the program this month, budget planners could soon start trimming classes and staff in anticipation of shortfalls in the next school year.

"You're going to see significant layoffs in the rural schools in California starting mid-February and going all through the spring," predicted Bob Douglas, Tehama County schools superintendent and president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition. The county is at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley.

Douglas returned to California on Friday after a week of last-minute lobbying in Washington for an extension of a 2000 act that has funneled $500 million a year nationally to rural counties for schools and roads.

"Very frankly, we feel deeply disappointed and a bit betrayed that the administration and members of Congress did not fulfill their responsibilities to protect the rural counties," Douglas said.

The payments, which expire this year, offset a steep drop in federal logging income, a portion of which goes to counties with large national forest holdings to compensate for their small private tax bases.

Most of the counties are in the West, with Oregon, California and Washington the top recipients of the school and road funding. In California, 39 counties, predominantly in the Sierra Nevada and the far north, depend on the money to some degree.

But attempts to extend the payments to 2014 foundered in Congress amid competing partisan funding visions.

"Nobody opposes this," said James Parsons, superintendent of schools in Alpine County, where 92% of the land belongs to the federal government. The county lies between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.

"The problem," he added, "is both sides of the aisle have their different version of how they think we should be funded, and it's tied to other agendas."

A Bush administration proposal to finance the program by selling off national forest parcels collapsed when opposition from sportsmen groups turned even conservative Western congressmen against the idea.

Republican proponents of expanded offshore oil drilling vowed to earmark some royalties for the schools bill. But the drilling measure faltered. So did a Democratic proposal to raise funds by closing a tax loophole for government contractors.

"The school districts are still caught in the middle. So I'm a little upset," said Parsons, whose district gets $400,000 a year.

The district has a bit of a reserve and will be able to make it though one more year, he said. But after that, it will have to start cutting if the payments are not renewed.

With only 1,200 residents -- 200 of them students -- Alpine is California's least populated county. Because it straddles snowy Sierra passes that can get shut down in the winter, it has schools on both sides of the range, including two tiny high schools and two grade schools.

The high schools, with six students each, would probably be the first to go in a budget crunch, because the district already buses some of its teenagers to high schools outside the county. But Parsons said the grade schools would also lose teachers and programs.

In Sierra County, north of Lake Tahoe and west of Reno, schools rely on the payments for a fourth of their budget.

The superintendent has warned that if the funding is not extended, the district will need a $1.2-million state bailout loan or have to close every school in the county.

The sponsors of the 2000 legislation, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), both say they will try again to get funding when Congress reconvenes in January.

"It is, and will remain, Sen. Wyden's No. 1 priority," an aide said. "He will not abandon the rural counties in Oregon."

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