WSSDA News – WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee recoups millions of dollars for schools

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Jun 8

Written by: Sean Duke
6/8/2018 1:13 PM  RssIcon

members of the trust lands committee

Early in 2017, WSSDA staff and members of WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee met with OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdal. Their message to Reykdal was clear: let school districts keep the money they receive from state forest lands instead of automatically deducting it from their state allocation for basic education. The committee asked Reykdal why this occurs and how to stop it. 

State forest lands are managed under state law for the benefit of local governments, including school districts. Money from state forest landsis generally used by local governments for operating expenditures.

Newly elected at the time, Superintendent Reykdal pledged to study the issue. As it turns out, the practice of “clawing back” state forest lands revenue from districts had been codified via WAC 392-121-415. Once that was made clear, WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee made a compelling argument to OSPI for changing that rule, so compelling in fact that OSPI initiated the rule change process. After formally proposing the rule change (see WSR 18-06106) and holding an open comment period, the change was implemented. 

“I was following this issues when I was on the Tumwater School Board, again as a legislator, and very closely now that I serve on the Board of Natural Resources,” said Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “It has been a priority of mine to ensure that rural communities see all of the benefits of state forest trust lands. In my role as State Superintendent, it is clear to me that I have the authority to make this change. The OSPI team has worked closely with WSSDA leadership and champions like Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt to make this happen. The economic benefits of the natural resources economy are now going to empower our rural districts more appropriately.” 

The committee’s diligence and advocacy has led to a multi-million dollar impact for nearly 80 school districts. Annually, state forest lands revenue can fluctuate significantly, but in the 2016-17 school year, $13.7 million was distributed to 78 school districts, only to be taken back via the old rule. If that had not happened, nearly half of the 78 districts would’ve received more than enough funds to hire an additional teacher. For the rest of those rural districts, the funds would still have been enough to make meaningful enhancements to basic education. Going forward, from a date still to be determined by OSPI, that practice is no longer scheduled to occur.  

“It’s a great example of the value of committees and it validates the model of the WSSDA legislative advocacy process itself,” said Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt, chair of WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee. “First, the committee worked on it. Then, we put the issue through WSSDA’s Legislative Assembly to get a member-approved legislative position. Then, having a legislative position empowered WSSDA’s executive director and government relations staff to take up the issue and help us toward the success we have today.” 

While his first observation was that it was a “team effort,” and certainly it was, it may be worth noting that in addition to his 18 years of service on the Mount Baker School Board, Pfeiffer-Hoyt took quite a bit of initiative leading up to this success. “In the primaries [for superintendent of public instruction] I attended open forums and posed questions to candidates,“ said Pfeiffer-Hoyt. “And then during the elections, I made a point of meeting both candidates to discuss school trust lands.”  

Pfeiffer-Hoyt also expressed his personal thanks to Superintendent Reykdal, WSSDA Executive Director, Tim Garchow, Jessica Vavrus, Brian Sims and Trust Land Advisory Committee members Cindy Kelly, Port Angeles and Jim Stoffer, Sequim who joined him in testifying at the OSPI rule change hearing. 

Another point made by supporters of the rule change was that rural school districts were disadvantaged in a way that urban districts were not. If the state forest lands were in private ownership, the school districts would receive property taxes on the value of the land, just as urban districts do. Further, with new restrictions on how much local school districts could levy for local enhancements to basic education (per EHB 2242, 2017), taxable assessed value is more important than ever. This violates, it was argued, the intent and spirit of the hard-fought solution to the McCleary lawsuit. 

And finally, equitable treatment of local governments was the third point made in WSSDA’s appeal to OSPI. We pointed out that there are many distributions of state revenues to various local governments. For example, state funds support local public health programs, criminal justice, transportation, affordable housing and social services. None of those programs or services have been subjected to state forest lands revenue claw backs like school districts have. If state policy were that timber harvest revenues are important to support these local programs, it would seem doubly important to use these revenues to support local enhancements to basic education. 

On June 4, OSPI announced that effective immediately, impacted districts will retain state forest revenue. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the tremendous efforts of WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee along with the support of Superintendent Reykdal and staff in reaching an equitable and positive outcome for our rural school districts.

—See this story and more in the summer issue of Direct.

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WSSDA’s Trust Lands Advisory Committee recoups millions of dollars for schools

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