Superintendent Tim Hager's district in central Missouri is surrounded by federal forestland in every direction.
School buses shuttle some of the 366 students in the Iron County C-4 School District between their homes dotted throughout the national forestland and the school campus in the small town of Viburnum.
The drive on tough gravel roads beats the buses up, Hager said, but he hasn’t been receiving the big checks from the U.S. Forest Service he once got, so he’s putting off buying a new bus.
He’s also eliminated four staff positions.
Dozens of rural central and southern Missouri school districts are having to make those kinds of difficult decisions. While Hager's district can’t collect property taxes on the federally owned land, it does get a check from the federal government splitting profits from logging the land. For years, districts received half of all timber revenue generated on federal forestland. But that law expired in 2014. Now, districts are only getting a quarter of the profits.
“That money is kind of a subsidy because they’re not selling (forestland) to private individuals to farm or things like that,” Hager said. “So it’s kind of a big deal here.”
In the past, it was worth $220,000 toward Hager’s $4 million budget. The check that arrived last year was for only $110,000.
“The problem that happened is, we didn’t see this coming. So a year ago, we’re well into our budget year and boom, here’s $100,000 you’re not gonna get,” said Hager, who got the same diminished check this year.
Nearly 100 school districts in Missouri touch at least part of the Mark Twain National Forest.
In 2014, before the Secure Rural Schools Act expired, those districts shared $3.3 million. That dropped to $860,000 when the payments reverted back to a 1908 law that only gives schools 25 percent of the timber profits.
For some Missouri schools, the logging revenue checks are only a few hundred or thousand dollars. But for others, like Alton R-IV School District in Oregon County in far southern Missouri, the check was worth about $266,000 before the law expired.
Alton Superintendent Eric Allen has eliminated one part-time and two full-time staff positions through attrition. So far he’s been able to use fund reserves to put off deeper cuts to his $6.5 million budget.
“We’re kicking the can down the road, but we’re about to run out of road to do that,” Allen said.
There is legislation in Congress to renew the Secure Rural Schools Act and restore the 50-50 split on timber revenue, but it’s received little attention. The House version of the bill is co-authored by Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem. His spokeswoman, Maggie Starks, said restoring the payments is “a top priority.”
Starks said the congressman is trying to attach the act’s renewal to the latest federal spending measure.
Superintendent Hager said the federal government has backtracked on its agreement with rural schools.
“We’re dying on the vine out here,” he said.
To offset losses, Iron County schools will ask residents to approve a property tax increase on the April election ballot.