A bill in the State of Oregon's Senate Finance Committee waiting to be considered on the Senate floor with a "do pass' recommendation would return some hijacked federal dollars to local school districts.
Senate Bill 747, sponsored by Sen. Ted Ferrioli of John Day and Sen. Tony Corcoran of District 4 which includes Cottage Grove, could return as much as $100,000 annually to the Enterprise school district and as much as $80,000 each year to Joseph and Wallowa. Because of unknown "hold harmless" variables in the legislation, returns to the local school districts could be as low at $50,000 and $40,000 annually to the respective school districts. Of course the bill first has to pass through the obstacle course of the senate, house and Governor Ted Kulongoski.
In 2000 the federal government passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act which was designed to provide monetary compensation to counties and school districts which had been negatively hit by a significant downturn from forest timber receipts.
With environmental concerns reducing logging activities on federal lands, communities across the nation like Wallowa County with large portions of land in national forests were suddenly deprived of a vital source of revenue. The federal legislation in 2000 was intended to atone for that shortfall.
It did not happen in Oregon because then-Governor John Kitzhaber, with help, confiscated the federal dollars earmarked primarily for rural schools and placed them in the educational funding formula. Instead of going to schools hit by the loss of timber dollars, it went across the board to every school district in the state.
Both Enterprise schools superintendent Brad Royse and Wallowa County Education Service District superintendent/Wallowa school superintendent Ed Jensen are of the opinion that Oregon is in jeopardy of losing $30 million annually because it is not using the appropriated funds as was the expressed intent of the federal legislation. According to Jensen, the original federal bill was authorized until 2007, but may now be re-authorized as early as 2004.
Jensen says that SB 747 has some atypical supporters from the more populated western half of the state, because they have legislation proposed which would allow them to tax businesses and increase income taxes at a local level to support schools. Such would not be in harmony with the across-the-board equilization for students reasoning that was presented to include the federal forest receipt dollars into the state education funding formula.
The "hold harmless" clause, which would dramatically impact the amount of non retroactive dollars to local school districts, hinges on fellow rural counties such as Gilliam and Malheur which do not have substantial federal forest lands. SB 747 would ensure that such counties, which neither have the population to effectively tax businesses and individuals, nor receive forest dollars, would not receive less than the $25 per student per year currently allotted through the forest reciepts' portion of the funding formula.
Jensen places the timber receipts value in Wallowa County at $100 for each student.
The added dollars would in no way erase the financial crunch the local school districts are in, but, in the words of Jensen, "could slow the bleeding."
"An additional $90,000 would help soften the blow of the loss of enrollment," said Royse.
Both superintendents encourage district patrons to send letters to the legislature in support of SB 747. Jensen goes so far as to say that he will share the names and addresses of key senators, plus a form letter, with people who contact him at 426-4997.