Extension Of 'Secure Rural Schools' Means Idaho Counties Can Breathe Easy...For Now

Apr 23, 2015

President Barack Obama last week signed a $200 billion Medicare bill that reforms payments to physicians. Tucked inside that massive Medicare bill was a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act, a federal program that pays rural counties and school districts with a lot of non-taxable forest land.

Without this re-authorization, Idaho counties were expecting a $2 million payment this year; that's a fraction of last years' $28 million.

Now, the temporary extension means 34 of Idaho's 44 counties will continue receiving Secure Rural Schools payments, estimated to be about 95 percent of what they were paid in 2014.

For some counties, that means they'll receive millions of dollars.

"It was a huge sigh of relief," Basin School District Superintendent John McFarlane says. "It got great support in both the House and the Senate, so we kind of felt confident, but politics being as it is, you never know until it gets signed."

McFarlane's rural district 40-miles north of Boise in Idaho City would have been considering cuts to programs like preschool, sports, music and art. A two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools means program cuts are likely off the table.

"We're very, very careful to underestimate revenue and overestimate expenses and that's worked well for us in the past, and we're going to continue with that."

Still, counties and school districts across the country that rely on this money will be in the same spot two years from now, once this extension expires.

"This unpredictability is not helpful for the counties, highway districts or the schools," Idaho Association of Counties Executive Director Dan Chadwick says. "Some school districts just passed levies, in part probably to make up for the shortfall, only to find the [Secure Rural Schools] money came through after all."

Chadwick says Congress periodically re-authorizing the payment program isn't a long term solution.

"Schools and counties need reliable funding sources and the way this was handled does not foster stability or reliability," Chadwick says.

Find Emilie Ritter Saunders on Twitter @emiliersaunders

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