Idaho: A Patchwork Funding Quilt With Lots of Holes

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Second in a two-part look at issues facing rural schoolsin the West and Midwest.

Donna Eimers-MacMillen and her family don't have to be here.

This past summer, her daughters watched in disbelief as voters in this farmland town rejected a tax levy that would have saved their school from drastic budget cuts.

No lunch at school this year; no breakfast, either. Cafeteria workers and a few other employees were laid off. No football, no volleyball, no basketball, no field trips, no new books.

Until Ms. Eimers-MacMillen and her three daughters, and other parents and students in their town of 3,200, went to work.

They've sold soda pop, washed cars, and cleaned Grangeville's rodeo grounds to raise an amazing $80,000 in about two months—enough to save the fall sports programs and activities like the state-champion academic team, though not the school meals.

What Ms. Eimers-MacMillen and other parents fear most of all is next year. Can they raise that much money again? Must they work every spare hour to offer what most schools provide without a second thought?

"Our school system suffers so bad," Ms. Eimers-MacMillen said, and she doesn't hesitate to point her finger at those she believes are to blame: "Our legislature needs to rethink how they distribute their money."

The budget crunch in rural Idaho schools isn't just something lawmakers banter about 200 miles away in the Statehouse in Boise.

It's a real, dollar-by-dollar fight for schools' lives. Without more stable sources of money, some Idaho schools are cutting programs that directly affect children every day, and administrators are making decisions few of their colleagues ever have to face. The reason is Idaho's patchwork-quilt way of financing schools, a system that is also a way of life in parts of neighboring Montana, Utah, and California.

Unlike much of the country, where strong economies are leaving many school districts solidly in the black, many rural districts in Midwestern and Western states are finding themselves doubly pinched by tight budgets and declining enrollments.

'Norman Rockwell'

In Idaho, a group of rural districts is suing the state, demanding help with repairing aging school buildings. Many of those districts each year must ask voters to approve tax increases for basic operating costs, while others receive substantial aid from the federal government that varies widely from town to town and which has become increasingly unreliable.

In Grangeville, the price to pay may be losing parents such as Ms. Eimers-MacMillen, who grew up in Chicago but moved back with her husband and daughters 21 years ago. Her father was born and raised here, and she wants to stay here. But she says she won't if the quality of the local schools remains in doubt.

"That's up to my daughters," Ms. Eimers-MacMillen said one day recently, sitting in the lobby of the dentist's office she manages on Main Street, within walking distance of her daughters' schools. "If they say they would want to move, then we would move to where it seems that people are willing to pay for education."

On every side of Grangeville are distant mountains, some with rocky peaks shrouded in evergreen, others blonde and barren. Where the mountains end, the vast and rolling Camas Prairie begins, like a slice of Midwestern farmland plopped in the middle of Idaho's peaks.

Grangeville sits on this prairie, at the western end of a school district that spreads over 8,000 square miles—about the size of Massachusetts. The town itself is the largest place for 70 miles or more. Downtown stores and an old-style movie theater still thrive.

"It's kind of like a Norman Rockwell community," said Gary Allen, who coaches middle school basketball and has two teenagers in the 2,000-student Grangeville schools. But, he said, if the schools don't have the resources to provide a good education, "we're in a chance of damaging that."

The football field sits on a hill with a view of distant communities and the mountains. It's Thursday night, time for the junior high game, but there would be no game if students and parents hadn't raised the money over the summer to pay for it. Local taxpayers rejected two proposed levies that would have preserved most school programs, including sports.

Tax levies are common in many towns in Idaho and neighboring states, but they haven't always been necessary for the Grangeville schools. The district, which covers two time zones and includes several small towns, in years past has gotten all the money it needed from a once- plentiful source: logs.

Levies Rejected

A portion of the money earned from the selling of timber on the federal lands that cover much of central Idaho goes to school districts. The problem, educators and legislators here say, is that the Clinton administration's environmental policies have cut timber harvests severely.

Grangeville has seen its forest revenues dwindle. Last year, the district received $800,000 less than the year before—a huge dent in its annual $9.4 million budget.

Cutbacks in the lumber industry and on local farms have forced some families to look for work elsewhere. Grangeville has lost 117 students over the past three years, and expects to lose another 200 within four years, Superintendent Wayne Davis said.

Tight economic times combined with Idaho's fiercely independent spirit spelled doom for the two recent levy votes across the school district.

"Grandpa" John Brandt, whose family owns the hardware store in Stites, 20 miles from Grangeville, opposed the levies.

Mr. Brandt insists that schools waste money. He's more comfortable donating to the local schools, which all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have attended.

Twenty years ago, he helped do away with building permits in Idaho County, home to Grangeville. "If I want to build something on my piece of ground, I just build it," he said. "Idaho County is what America was."

The voters' rejection of the two levies, the last in June for $605,000, prompted Ms. Eimers-MacMillen and others to take matters into their own hands.

Senior David Church, the student body president at Grangeville High and a lineman on the football team, says he pitched in to help because a school without sports isn't much of a school. "It was really depressing, just a show of no support," said the tall, dark-haired senior, wearing his pads after practice.

What if Grangeville High had to scrap football? "I'd move," Mr. Church said. "I think you'd see more teachers in the community who have kids ... just move on, if they can."

Students in Riggins, a town in the Salmon River valley about an hour away from Grangeville, raised money by selling drinks to motorists stuck in construction traffic on the main street.

"This is the first generation of kids who came through this school district that had to pay for their own extracurricular activities," said Marilyn Giddings, the principal of 250-student Salmon River High School in Riggins.

Questions remain as to whether winter and spring sports will be affordable.

But on a recent week, a sign in downtown Riggins carried a message pleasing to the residents: "Home Football!," Friday at 7 p.m.

Enough To Quit

Harold Ott was so fed up with the lack of money—and people's unwillingness to do anything about it—that it was a main reason he quit his job as the superintendent of the 680-student Whitepine district, about 100 miles north of Grangeville.

Tired of seeing 80-year-old Troy High School fail state safety inspections three years in a row, and after watching residents vote down a new school, Mr. Ott decided to leave.

"I saw an unwillingness by some people to face the fact they even had a problem," said Mr. Ott, who took a job as the superintendent in nearby Lapwai. He and other rural educators in Idaho want the state to contribute more money for school buildings, freeing up local dollars for educational uses. They also want to make it easier to ask taxpayers for special tax increases.

Money for school buildings wasn't such a big problem when federal forest funds were more dependable, and before schools were required to offer more extensive special education classes, for example, or make their buildings more accessible to people with disabilities.

And it wasn't such a political issue during the early part of this century, when Troy High was built. A quaint building with a metal, sloping roof in the hillside town of 699, the school doesn't look like a safety hazard.

But Mr. Ott said it is, and the superintendent who replaced him in Troy can't argue.

The fire escapes don't allow easy exits from the 151-student high school. Heat is provided by a boiler that sits on a dirt floor in an unventilated room near a chemistry lab, Mr. Ott said. The old foundation lets water seep inside.

"Those rocks are damp over there," said the new superintendent, Daryl Bertelsen, pointing to the subterranean stone wall of a gym.

Down a narrow hallway from the gym is Troy High's cafeteria, about the size of two regular classrooms. Principal Conrad Underdahl stopped between bites of cake to explain how water can flood the dining area. "In the middle of winter, we wouldn't be sitting here," he said, because water leaks through the walls onto the cafeteria floor.

Up the hill from the high school stands the modern elementary school, approved by voters and built six years ago.

Yet this year, Whitepine district residents voted against a new high school—in part because it would be shared with a neighboring town.

Location, Location, Location

Mr. Ott's new district, Lapwai, is about 12 miles outside Lewiston, by far the largest town in its northwest part of Idaho, with a population of 28,000. Lapwai, with about 1,000 residents, is situated on a steep grade about 30 minutes' drive from Troy.

Lapwai is one of the fortunate districts that receives more
federal help than towns like Grangeville and Troy. The reason for Lapwai's extra boost is its location and the bloodline of many of its 550 students. Lapwai sits in the heart of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.

While nearly every student in nearby Troy is white, three of four Lapwai students are members of the Nez Perce tribe, which qualifies the schools for federal "impact aid."

"With the impact aid, there is no need to be so reliant on property taxes," said Mr. Ott, sitting in a fresh-looking office twice the size of his old quarters in Troy. "What that allows me to do here is focus on education and not money raising."

Even with the federal aid, Lapwai is far from reaching its goals, Mr. Ott said. Its two-story high school dates to 1941 and has seen little renovation since then. One thing Lapwai's extra money does allow is a brighter future, something Mr. Ott couldn't see in his old district.

"I think people are excited about making schools better here," he said.

Other districts in Idaho have different challenges when it comes to money, although some have it relatively easy.

Some districts benefit from the presence of other federal facilities, notably nuclear power plants or storage facilities.

But with cutbacks in the nuclear industry in recent years, those sources of funds and jobs are beginning to shrink, leaving the possibility of rough times ahead for schools.

Down around Boise, things are better. Suburban towns such as Meridian and Nampa are growing by hundreds of students a year, raising their state funding. And the new influx of suburban businesses spreads the tax load more evenly, so that homeowners don't have to foot the whole bill for new schools.

Help From Congress

Congress has recognized the plight of rural districts in Idaho and elsewhere, and some relief may be on the way. In Washington, a bipartisan bill passed the House decisively last week, but its future with the Senate and President Clinton remained uncertain.

The bill would return a portion of the forest revenues missing in recent years to the 800 counties across the country that grew dependent on them.

"It will be a substantial improvement for rural schools," said Bob Douglas, the superintendent of the Tehama County, Calif., schools and the head of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, which represents the affected districts.

Mr. Douglas said his 11,000-student system north of Sacramento would be able to add more teachers and a host of services if the bill passes.

In Idaho, federal relief would help Grangeville and other districts that receive timber funds. But the legislation would not solve the inequities in state funding that plague many other small and rural systems.

David Neumann, the superintendent of Idaho's 340-student Genesee district near Troy, hopes the lawsuit filed eight years ago by rural districts may solve the problem. Genesee is the leader among the 25 districts in the case, which may finally see its day next spring.

Mr. Neumann said his district has no extra money for building repairs and would be driven bankrupt if voters rejected one of the yearly levies that help pay for operating costs. "The current system just doesn't work," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 6

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Idaho: A Patchwork Funding Quilt With Lots of Holes
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