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Federal forest fees will provide some $762,000 to Navajo County School Districts this year, which will bolster school district budgets in the upcoming fiscal year. The money comes from a share of the mineral leases, grazing fees and other revenue generated by federal lands.

ARIZONA — School districts will pocket some federal spare change this year after all.

Federal forest fees will provide some $762,000 to Navajo County School Districts this year, which will bolster school district budgets in the upcoming fiscal year.

The money comes from a share of the mineral leases, grazing fees and other revenue generated by federal lands.

Congress each year authorizes the distribution, but usually doesn’t act until long after local school districts have adopted their budgets. In some years, Congress skips the distributions entirely. As a result, most school districts don’t count on the money until it actually shows up in their bank accounts.

The Navajo County Board of Supervisors approved distribution of the money at its board meeting last week.

Distributions for the 2019-20 school year include:

  • Snowflake Unified: $123,000
  • Heber/Overgaard Unified: $254,000
  • Show Low Unified: $240,000
  • Blue Ridge: $94,000
  • NCAD School: $50,000 (operated by the Navajo County Superintendent of Schools for special education students).

Overall, the Forest Service this year provided $215 million to 742 counties and 41 states for roads, schools and other county programs. Arizona will receive $9.2 million, which comes from about 25 percent of the fees and leases the Forest Service collects.

The amount provided has declined steadily since 1980, in large measure due to the big reductions in timber sales nationally. The money is intended to help support counties and schools having a hard time raising enough tax money to support services when they include a high percentage of non-tax-paying federal land. Only 18 percent of the land in Navajo County is privately owned.

The money will provide a welcome – although thin – cushion for school district bracing for a reduction in state funding, thanks to a likely crash in sales tax receipts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic and a jump in the unemployment rate to an estimated 20 percent will likely turn a previously projected billion-dollar state surplus into a potential $1.1 billion deficit, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. That projection was made several weeks ago. The economy’s already in a recession much deeper than in 2008. Economists hope the economy will recover quickly once businesses reopen, although a new surge in cases could dash those hopes.

No one knows how the fitfully-convened state legislature will react once the effects of an unemployment rate above 15 percent and plunging retail sales hit home. During the 2008 recession, the unemployment rate never climbed above about 10 percent and the state’s revenue dropped by a third. The legislature responded with the deepest education cuts in the nation, since K-12 schools and universities account for more than half of state spending. Some of those cuts have lingered for more than a decade, leaving Arizona with among the lowest per-student spending rates in the country.

State lawmakers adopted a “skinny budget” before going into recess a month ago. The slimmed down budget included money for the final installment of a three-year, 20-percent teacher pay raise – but skipped funding most new programs. The senate and house this week were locked in a dispute about whether to go back into session to pass a few high-priority bills or simply quit for the year – leaving Gov. Doug Ducey to deal with the impending financial crisis.

The “skinny budget” as it now stands includes some added education funding including $175 million for the third installment of the three-year, 20-percent teacher pay raise, $90 million for capital improvements unfunded since the Great Recession and $67 million for added technology, textbooks, building renewal and personnel.

Districts worry that the legislature may ultimately approve additional cuts if the stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns produce a bigger deficit than anticipated.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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