By Amanda Litvinov
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Dana Dillon grew up in Siskiyou County, in far northern California, and has taught at Weed Union Elementary School for 34 years.
The area where she lives and works is best known for its crowning geographical feature: the breathtaking 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta. It is almost entirely surrounded by national forests, where residents and visitors hike, camp, and fish.
Few realize there is a serious downside to living in the area: federally protected lands, including national forests, don’t contribute to local tax bases that provide funding for public schools.
Now, crucial support for 9 million students in 4,000 school districts in 720 rural counties is at risk because Congress has not renewed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The act passed in 2000 to help offset the lack of tax revenue, but it expired a year ago, and the last payments were issued in March.
“What that has meant for small rural schools is they continue to get less and less money, so of course programs are cut, and teachers are let go,” said Dillon. “And since the economic downturn hit, districts like ours have received less money from the state.”
Dillon serves on the board of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, a group lobbying Congress to renew the Secure Rural Schools Act. The act has been renewed several times since its passage, but funded at lower levels.
“The funding we got last year was less than 60 percent of what it was back in 2008,” Dillon said.
It’s another tough break for a town that’s seen a lot of them.
“When I first started teaching there were over 850 kids here. Now there are only around 250,” said Dillon. “When the federal government said we could no longer cut timber on federal forest lands, our mills and factories shut down and it became a severely economically depressed area pretty quickly.”
About 90 percent of Dillon’s students are from low-income families, and Dillon works with children who have weathered the worst effects of the town’s decline.
Dillon’s teaches the Opportunity Class, which serves as an alternative placement for K-8 students who are failing in traditional classes, who are in trouble with the law, or who would otherwise be expelled.
“These are not bad kids,” said Dillon. “They’re kids who are struggling with a lot inside and outside of school.”
Conditions at their school are likely to further deteriorate if Congress does not act to restore funding for rural schools. It is possible that Weed Elementary will lose a teaching position, or several classroom aides without it.
“We used to have a full-time librarian—that was my job once—and now we haven’t had one in years,” Dillon said. “We cut music at one point due to the different funding sources being ratcheted down. We’re at bare bones already and if we lose our aides it’s going to be even harder.”
“Losing school staff affects kids in terms of their classroom experience, but also personally,” said Dillon.
“This is supposed to be a safe and stable place for them.”