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Originally published Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 3:02 PM

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Guest: Stop dinging state schools for timber money

Washington is the only state that currently deducts state education funds from school districts that receive federal timber money and it’s time to stop, writes guest columnist Neal Kirby.

Special to The Times

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SCHOOL districts in Washington are asking the state Legislature to restore basic education funds that the state now deducts, dollar for dollar, from more than 200 districts equal to the federal timber money these districts receive.

Washington is the only state that currently deducts state education funds from school districts that receive federal timber money, and has been doing so for 32 years. These are federal dollars provided to school districts in lieu of local levy taxes that might otherwise be collected from nontaxable federal forest lands.

The Legislature is considering stopping these deductions. The state House budget committee has included $2 million to begin a phased restoration of the basic education funds.

Timber money is the first mitigation money that compensates for a government environmental action. These funds were established by President Teddy Roosevelt — after creating our national parks and the national forest system — in response to concerns over the withdrawal of land from local economic development and from the local tax base.

Congress approved a national revenue-sharing plan in 1908 for rural counties and schools to mitigate the loss. The counties receive the money for roads and forest improvement projects. The funds for the schools replace taxes that would have been raised by the school levy from the forest lands if left privately owned.

Currently, the federal government provides $8 million per year to Washington schools. County governments keep their share but the state recaptures the $8 million for schools by deducting basic education money in the same amount each district receives, leaving no benefit for these schools.

The Centralia School District, for example, received $322,000 in 2013 in timber money. The state then deducted $322,000 in state education funds from the district in lieu of the timber dollars.

The same year, Centralia raised more than 20 percent of what it received in state and federal dollars from its property tax levy. Due to the low per-student property values, high unemployment and low average incomes, most timber-dependent districts cannot ask for higher levies without fear of losing the levy altogether.

Centralia then loses basic education funds equal to its timber money. The timber money, in effect, supplants a portion of the state’s obligation to provide for the students’ education in these districts rather than enhancing the levy and mitigating federal environmental decisions.

Schools that receive the most federal timber money are in rural, economically distressed counties where the timber industry has suffered from a long economic downturn. Consequently, most districts that receive significant timber money also fail to collect their full allowable levies.

In Centralia, 72 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches. The state dollars, if restored, could provide more educational assistants, extend school days and add counseling time to address student needs.

Ferry County, which often has the state’s highest unemployment and lowest incomes, would receive $500,000 if basic education funding is restored. Clallam County would receive $460,000; Okanogan $800,000; Jefferson $460,000; Chelan $760,000; Yakima $690,000; and Lewis $1 million.

The state doesn’t deduct education funds for other federal dollars received from federal agencies. Districts serving children of our military personnel don’t have dollars deducted for federal impact aid. Nor does the state deduct funds where Native American nations were created or the federal dam system was built, both of which also receive federal aid.

The state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision ruled that Washington failed to properly fund education. Restoring the basic education dollars for these school districts would be a straightforward way for lawmakers to redirect education funding toward local schools, especially to schools that tend to have the greatest need.

It’s a matter of fairness. We need to honor the intent of the country’s first major environmental president, Teddy Roosevelt, and end this 32-year practice of deducting basic education funds from some of our most economically distressed areas.

Neal Kirby is a school director for Centralia School District. He previously worked as a school principal and state representative for the 7th Legislative District.

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