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In Idaho School District, Preschool At Risk Without Federal Funds

Idaho preschool teacher Mary Allen listens to one of her students during their afternoon snack time. The state doesn't have public preschool, so programs are paid for through a hodgepodge of funding sources.
Emilie Ritter Saunders
Idaho preschool teacher Mary Allen listens to one of her students during their afternoon snack time. The state doesn't have public preschool, so programs are paid for through a hodgepodge of funding sources.

The Basin School District in rural south-central Idaho has something most districts in the state don't: preschool. But now that's at risk because of federal funding cuts.

It's not alone: Sparsely populated school districts and counties covered in federal forest lands will have less money this year — $250 million less — because Congress allowed the Secure Rural Schools Act to expire.

Since Idaho doesn't have public preschool, 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, this preschool has been paid for by a grant, a voter-approved levy, some tuition, fundraisers and federal Secure Rural Schools Act money.

Teacher Mary Allen says the program has shrunk over the years.

"I don't know how the program could be reduced any more than it is," she says. "It's already only two days a week."

The school district's entire budget is $3 million. It's taking a double hit because its levy funds run out next year, and it will lose Secure Rural Schools money.

First approved by Congress in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act 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 across the country will get just a fraction of what they'd planned on because Congress allowed the funding to expire last September.

Nearly every state in the country is losing money. Idaho got $28 million last year, but this year it gets $2 million.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho has signed on to a bipartisan bill that would reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act and fully fund a separate support system for these rural counties called payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT.

"This is not a spending program like most federal programs," he says. "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 and other lawmakers from rural states say that 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's county is nearly 75 percent federal.

Basin superintendent John McFarlane — who is also secondary principal and a science teacher — 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.

Without this federal forest money, though, McFarlane worries extras like preschool could become a casualty.

"Without it, it's devastating," he says. "We're going to have to really 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 kind of flexibility those dollars do."

From the preschool playground, you can see state and federal 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," Rice says. "To have that go away would 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 across the West are worth it.

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio News

Emilie is Boise State Public Radio's digital content coordinator. She helps shape what you see on this website, from original reporting and building data visuals to story planning and social media outreach.