This story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered March 12, 2015.
The Basin School District in Idaho City has something most districts in the state don’t, preschool.
On Wednesdays, 12 preschoolers leave their small house-turned-school and walk across the playground to the high school’s music room. The children sit cross-legged in a circle and the music teacher hands out two brightly-colored sticks to each student. Music class for these preschoolers is all about rhythm, following directions, and giggling.
Idaho doesn’t have public preschool, and schools that want to offer it, have to find creative ways to pay for the program. State money isn’t an option.
Over the last 15 years, the Basin School District has paid for their unique preschool program with a grant, a voter-approved levy, some tuition, fundraisers, and federal Secure Rural Schools act money.
“I don’t know how the program could be reduced any more than it already is,” says teacher Mary Allen. “It’s already only two days a week.”
Basin’s entire budget is about $3 million. It’s taking a double hit because its levy funds runs out next year and it’ll lose Secure Rural Schools Act money.
Congress has allowed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to expire. Rural counties across the country now have $250 million less to work with.
Boise County, which is home to the Basin School District, is planning for a $964,000 loss.
First approved by Congress in 2000, the law pays counties that have a lot of federal timber land. That land isn’t taxable, you can’t develop it, and resource and recreation opportunities are restricted.
Now, federal-land-heavy counties will get just a fraction of what they’d planned on. Instead of the enhanced timber payments under Secure Rural Schools, counties will see 25 percent of the money made on federal timber harvests.
For instance, Idaho got $28 million last year, this year it gets $2 million.
“I view this as a responsibility of the federal government,” U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo says.
Crapo, a Republican, has signed on to a bi-partisan bill that would reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act and fully fund a separate support system for these rural counties call PILT or Payment in Lieu of Taxes.
“This is not a spending program like most federal programs; this is a responsibility the federal government has to the states, and frankly to the counties, for the impact on the counties that is being caused by the federal government,” Crapo says.
Crapo, and other lawmakers from rural states, say until counties and school districts have a way to make money on federal land, Congress needs to reauthorize the payment plan.
Idaho has more federal land than almost any other state; 63 percent of Idaho is public, federally-owned land. Basin School District in Boise County is nearly 75 percent federal.
Basin’s superintendent John McFarlane says that while his staff has shrunk by a quarter in recent years and class sizes have grown, he hasn’t had to cut programs. Basin still has preschool, sports, music and art. Like at many small, rural schools, employees often wear many hats. McFarlane is also the high school principal and he teaches science.
McFarlane says without this federal forest money, he’s worried extras like preschool could become a casualty.
“Without it, it’s devastating,” McFarlane says. “We’re going to really have to look at what programs we’re going to have to cut or curtail because we don’t have the dollars coming any other way that gives us the flexibility those dollars do.”
From Basin’s preschool playground you can see forest land.
Four-year-olds take turns zooming by teacher Rhonda Rice on shiny blue tricycles.
“We’ve watched children grow up here with preschool and they get such a better start. To have that go away? That’d be really sad.”
Basin’s administrators plan to keep rearranging the pieces of their funding jigsaw puzzle in hopes of maintaining what they’ve got.
Still, they hope Congress decides rural schools and counties across the West are worth it.