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The Politics of School-Trust Lands

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Idaho's Jon Marvel is not the only Westerner crusading to change how states manage school-trust lands.

Conservationists, educators, and parents are pressuring states to pump more money from these lands. Even some public-lands officials say they think they could do better by schoolchildren.

"Sure, everyone wants to make more money from these lands," said Gary Gustafson, the president of the Western States Land Commissioners Association. "But politics sometimes gets in the way."

~It has been that way since the turn of the century, said Norma Paulus, the schools chief in Oregon and a former member of that state's land board. Funding schools through land trusts was a "brilliant move" at the time, she said. But over the years, state leaders bowed to political pressures and gave away most of the prime real estate to railroads, timber companies, and other private interests.

Political Protection

The value of the resources that remain often determines the dollars that trust lands contribute to schools. In New Mexico, for example, revenues from a wealth of oil and natural-gas reserves on state lands contribute about a quarter of the state's K-12 budget, said Jon A. Souder, a professor of forest policy at Northern Arizona University. Wyoming and Montana schools both get about 15 percent of their state funding from trust-land profits.

Utah's low returns from trust lands--such revenues make up less than 1 percent of the state's K-12 budget--have been a sore point recently. In 1992, the P.T.A.. and school groups made a video to hammer home the point that Utah earns less money from its trust lands than any other state.

The same groups successfully pressured the Utah legislature to insulate state-land management from politics. It passed legislation to replace the land board--whose members represented ranching, timber, and mineral interests, as well as trust beneficiaries--with a panel made up mostly of lands and business experts nominated by the trust beneficiaries themselves.

Conservationists in New Mexico and Oregon plan to challenge ranchers in land auctions.

In Arizona, meanwhile, the Center for Law in the Public Interest last month filed a lawsuit against the state seeking to open up bidding on the leases. The group successfully argued last year before the Arizona Supreme Court that the state's school funding was inadequate. (See Education Week, 8/3/94.)

"Somebody is making money off these lands, but it's not schools," said Timothy M. Hogan, the group's executive director.

In 1982, the Oklahoma Education Association successfully sued the state, claiming that its lands management was benefiting farmers, not schools. Financial returns to schools since that suit have doubled, said David Morris, the union's general counsel. But victory came at a price.

"Whoever brings that kind suit becomes a pariah," Mr. Morris said. "The fallout from that case among our members lasted for years. Suddenly, their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles were paying three and four times more for their leases, and we took a lot of flak for it."

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