MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. School boards in rural Northern California are meeting this week to decide how to cut millions of dollars from their budgets. That could mean a wave of school closures, teacher lay-offs, and program cuts, and not just there, possibly also in other rural schools across the U.S. It all hinges on federal money from harvesting timber. David Gorn reports.
DAVID GORN: A blizzard is dumping half a foot of snow on Alpine County today, so the P.E. class at Diamond Valley Elementary has come inside.
(Soundbite of children playing)
GORN: In remote, mountainous Alpine County near Lake Tahoe, the population is two people per square mile, but the tough weather here is nothing compared to dealing with a bare-bones school budget, says Jim Parsons(ph). He runs the six county schools on a financial shoestring.
Mr. JIM PARSON (Principal, County Superintendent, District Superintendent, Alpine County, California): I'm principal of every school, I'm county superintendent, district superintendent, and for a while there, I filled in as school nurse.
GORN: Rural schools here are dealing with less money, declining enrollment and local economies decimated by a slowdown in the timer industry. They are now facing a new cut in federal money, which would mean some districts would lose one-third of their entire budgets. As many as 50 teachers in rural school districts are expected to be laid of by March 15. Parson said he may eventually have to cut four instructors. That's one-fourth of Alpine County's teachers.
Mr. PARSON: We'd probably be looking at closing a couple of the necessary small high schools, eliminating all our aids and cutting our buses in about half.
GORN: Back in 1908 when the National Forest System was established by Teddy Roosevelt, a percentage of timber sales from those forests was set aside for rural counties all over the country to pay them for taking that land off the tax roles. That system worked for 80 years, but when timber harvesting in national forests plummeted in the 1990s, money for schools went down right along with it.
Mr. JACK O'CONNELL (Superintendent, California Schools): We need to hold the federal government accountable.
GORN: That's the superintendent for California schools, Jack O'Connell.
Mr. O'CONNELL: For the federal government to simply walk away with very little, if any, notice, is simply not fair.
GORN: In 2000, Congress passed the Rural Schools Act, which made up the difference for seven years, but that measure is about to expire. Congress is currently considering a seven-year extension of that act, or it might pass a one-year emergency extension. The Bush administration and the National Forest Service have another plan.
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GORN: Matt Mathen(ph) of the Forest Service is having some trouble opening a very large map.
Mr. MATT MATHEN (National Forest Service): See these broad areas of green that are in public ownership, that's the vast bulk of the national forest, but then you go a few miles off into the flat country, and you start to see these (unintelligible) parcels pop up.
GORN: The Bush administration wants to fund a five-year extension of the Rural Schools Act by selling off some of the smaller parcels of national forest land, thousands of them across the country, about 65,000 acres in California alone.
Mr. MATHEN: There are generally about 40 to 60, up to 120 acres each, which sounds like a lot, but since we manage 20 million acres, to us a 40-acre parcel really is relatively insignificant.
GORN: The proposal is not popular in D.C., where the discussion will heat up this month. Back in Alpine County, Jim Parson is watching teacher Ashley Barker(ph) work on archeology with her second-graders.
Mr. PARSON: I don't claim to be an expert forester. I'm just trying to keep a school district alive.
GORN: Even if Congress passes an extension, Parson says, or if the forest sale proposal goes through, he's still going to be facing the same budget crisis again in half a dozen years, unless a long-term fix can be worked out. Congress takes up the debate this month, but in rural California school districts, pink slips for teachers go out next Thursday. For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.
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