Letter to the Editor
My name is Dr. Eric Allen and I am the Superintendent of the Alton R-IV School District located in Oregon County, Missouri. I am taking this opportunity to directly contact you concerning the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding mechanism and the current lapse in its authorization for the 2016-17 fiscal year as well as the 2017-18 fiscal year.
What is Secure Rural Schools funding, you ask? From 1908 to 1999, states received 25 percent of the proceeds generated by the USDA’s US Forest Service timber sales and other revenues generated on federally owned land across the nation. The individual state then divided the money among its school districts based on the National Forest acreage in a given school district. In 2000, The U. S. Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) Act allowing states to receive 50 percent (as opposed to 25 percent) of the funds generated annually on federally owned lands, but as a multi-year rolling average of revenues calculated over several years and thus an on-going and purposeful method to decrease the funding levels as federal regulations continued to limit and decrease the amount of timber harvest on National Forest lands. The original SRS Act expired in 2006. Subsequent reauthorizations have always been contentious pieces of legislation and difficult to pass through all of the political hurdles in Washington, D.C. Even when those re-authorizations of SRS did pass, they almost always have contained de-escalator clauses lowering payments received each year by the impacted school districts.
However, the last SRS reauthorization expired in September 2015 and state payments reverted to the old 25 percent rule that was in place from 1908-1999. As a result, in FY16 and FY17 on a state-wide level, Missouri received less than one-half the funds received in FY15. This short-fall severely and negatively impacted public school districts in 29 Missouri counties, many of which are in the most rural areas of our great state. Over 90 Missouri School Districts receive some funding from this revenue source.
Our concerns at Alton R-IV are two-fold. First, and foremost, would be the now obvious negative and decreasing trend in the total dollar amount of funding that the Alton R-IV School District receives over time from this revenue source even though the amount of land owned by the Federal Government within the School District has not decreased over the last eight years (See Table A). Secondly, would be the issue of uncertainty specifically within the 2017-18 School District budget year as the fluctuations in SRS funding based on reauthorization (or not) is an estimated negative difference in excess of $130,000 for the Alton R-IV School District. In other terms, that would be approximately 3.0 teachers’ salaries with benefits or 1.0 teachers’ salary with benefits AND one new school bus on an annual basis.
As an aside when discussing the unique and continual need for bus upgrades for the District, Alton R-IV while having approximately 670 students PK-12th grade, composes the third largest geographic district in the State of Missouri in terms of square miles (just shy of 500 square miles) due to the previously mentioned land owned by the Federal Government (in excess of 104,000 acres), namely the Mark Twain National Forest. That fact, and based on where individual students live on pockets of still privately owned land intermingled with federally owned land within the School District boundaries, causes some of our students to get on a bus by 6:00am daily.
The last time the authorization of the SRS funding mechanism lapsed, the 2014-15 budget year, many schools in the State of Missouri, as well as Alton R-IV, were caught off guard. While we did then, and do now, appreciate the efforts of Missouri’s elected delegation in Washington, D.C. in gaining re-authorization of the SRS funding mechanism at that time for only two additional years (and that two year extension has since lapsed again leading us to the current situation at hand), the goal now is to voice our concerns regarding the SRS funding lapse for the 2016-17 budget year and the 2017-18 budget year as well as the overall decrease in funding levels for the last eight years.
Our goal is to seek back payments for the SRS funding amounts Missouri School Districts were short-changed during the 2016-17 budget cycle as well a full payment for the current 2017-18 budget year. In addition, we would respectively ask for, at minimum, a five year extension when re-authorization of the SRS Act is approved so that we are not literally being left in limbo with additional one and two year “kicking the can down the road” stop-gaps which leave rural Missouri School Districts at a tremendous disadvantage when our budgeting cycles include not only annual costs from year to year (salaries, utilities, supplies, etc.) but rotating costs such as bus purchases, technology improvements, and facility upgrades that occur both less frequently and in a staggered manner over several years to allow the School District to operate in a financially responsible manner.
Plainly speaking, it is difficult to have a five year financial plan for a School District with a schedule of alternating years for bus purchases, technology improvements, and facility upgrades under this uncertain scenario created by Washington, D.C. and their inaction concerning re-authorization of the SRS Act. It is a sad day when the Federal Government refuses to work efficiently and cooperatively on such a critical issue that easily cuts across both red and blue party lines. Missouri School Districts will continue to face uncertainty and difficult financial times concerning SRS funding short-falls as long as the U.S. Congress can’t focus on carrying out the people’s business they are elected to administer, and one portion of that business is to both honor and guarantee full and timely payment of funds under the Secure Rural Schools Funding Act for Missouri School Districts.
Respectfully submitted and with much frustration,
Historic SRS Payments to Alton R-IV
The total acres of land owned by the Federal Government in Oregon County, Missouri HAVE NOT DECREASED during the fiscal years depicted in Table A.
Dr. Eric Allen
Alton R-IV School