‘Bailout’ benefits county schools, roads

Skye Kinkade

County schools breathed a sigh of relief on Friday with the four-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act (SRSCA), which was a last-minute addition to the Emergency Economics Stabilization Act of 2008.

Numerous similar acts were attached to the originally three-page emergency bill to bring lawmakers who had first voted against it into the ‘yea’ camp. Described as ‘pork barrel’ funding by detractors, and ‘economic stimulus’ by supporters, the SRS Act was part of over 350 pages of earmarks added to the $700 billion package to help sweeten its passage for Congress members facing difficult November elections and constituencies angry over what they perceive to be a bailout of Wall Street.

The SRSCA “...provides critical funding to counties for their school and road improvement programs,” according to the National Forest Counties & Schools Coalition. Established in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools program “...helps rural counties adjacent to US National Forest lands cope with a sharp decline in revenue from federal forest timber sales.”

County Superintendent of Schools Kermith Walters was in Washington D.C. last week, working toward getting the Secure Rural Schools act into a bi-partisan tax extender package. Hopes were dashed when the House of Representatives twice rejected bills in which the reauthorization was included.

Walters said he was “surprised and ecstatic” when he learned that the SRS act was included in the revised “Wall Street bailout” passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on Friday.

The authorization for the SRS program expired in 2006, and was approved for a one year extension in 2007, from which Siskiyou County schools received $9.58 million last year. Without the money the program provides for California’s rural counties, Siskiyou County schools would receive less than 20 percent of funding currently available, said the Coalition.

“We are still waiting to find out the details and the exact wording of fine print [in the bill],”  Walters said.

Data tables, payment timelines, and legislative summaries have been requested for review as soon as possible so schools and counties can modify their 2008-09 budgets, said the NFCSC.

“We have been fighting for this for two years straight,” said Walters. The four year reauthorization ensures timber receipt funding through 2011, which will give school districts added time to find a permanent solution to monetary issues. “We hope that we can begin conversations so we can come to some sort of compromise... to settle the matter once and for all,” Walters said.

“A four-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program would allow rural counties to plan for the future – rather than face a catastrophic loss of $57 million in this year alone. It would help keep schools open for millions of children, prevent widespread teacher layoffs, and maintain important school programs and other county improvement projects,”  said Senator Diane Feinstein in a September press release regarding the extension of SRS funding.

In a press release on Monday, Representative Wally Herger said, “I have been a long-time supporter of the SRS program and its reauthorization has been one of my top priorities in Congress. SRS is vital to the important task of educating North State children. The reauthorization of this program... is excellent news for Northern California.”

The NFCSC described the passing of the SRS Act as a tremendous nation-wide effort.

Contacted for comments Monday, Dunsmuir and McCloud elementary schools’ superintendent Mike Michelon shared the sentiments of many area educators when he said, “We’re ecstatic. We haven’t seen the specifics yet of what this looks like... We were so worried because the chances of it getting passed didn’t look very good... This is great. This is money we hadn’t built into our multi-year projections.”

Superintendent Mark Telles of Castle Rock School, while glad to see the passage of the Act, expressed the same reservations shared by many across the nation about the larger economic bill it was attached to.  “I have mixed emotions,” Telles said by phone. “I’m happy for small rural schools like ours. We’ll receive approximately $13,300. I just wish it had come to us in a different funding package.”

• Reporter Tony D’Souza contributed to this article