By Amanda Litvinov
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It’s the school funding crisis that too few people are talking about: Congress allowed the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS) to expire over a year ago. Final payments went out in March.
Now, rural school districts in 42 states across the nation are preparing for devastating budget cuts that will directly affect the 9 million students they educate.
Like all districts located near federal protected lands removed from local tax rolls, Washington’s Stevenson-Carson School District relies on SRS funds to offset that missing source of revenue that communities use to fund schools. Roughly 80 percent of Skamania County is protected forest land, and less than 2 percent holds taxable property.
After years of shrinking payments, the complete loss of SRS funds will take a tremendous toll.
Stevenson-Carson students could lose music, visual arts, theater, and sports. Class sizes will grow if teachers and paraprofessionals lose their jobs—and those cuts are on the table.
“We had enough reserves that we could keep everything running for the 2016-17 school year,” said Karen Douglass, superintendent of the Stevenson-Carson School District. “But we have to make $1.4 million in cuts for next year to make up for the loss of SRS funds.”
Superintendent Karen Douglass’s video message to Congress.
She has made several trips to Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about the impact their inaction will have on students like hers.
Since SRS payments started shrinking back in 2010, Stevenson-Carson has already lost all librarians and counselors in its elementary schools, where class sizes also increased. The community of Carson lost its middle school, and its 7th and 8th graders were absorbed into the high school in Stevenson. There is no longer an alternative high school. Sports were pared down, and the swim team disbanded after the pool was permanently closed.
And the facilities are degrading.
“The desks, the chairs, the lockers, the windows, the floors—they’re all in terrible condition,” said Erin Riggins, a Spanish teacher at Stevenson High School. “I love this job, my co-workers, and the kids. But when I come to work, I’m walking into a dirty classroom straight out of the 1970s.”
Riggins, a National Board Certified Teacher with 15 years of experience, says the Stevenson-Carson district where she has taught for three-plus years is on a downhill trajectory, despite the passage of local levies to support the schools in 2012 and 2015.
On top of everything else, educators have had to absorb steep increases in the cost of their health insurance, which has affected their own bottom lines.
Riggins describes the staff as “exhausted and demoralized, which is not good for the students.”
She says right now the future is even bleaker, since any additional budget cuts will mean a less diverse curriculum and less one-on-one time between educators and students.
“This all sends a really unfortunate message to students who happen to live in rural counties, that their education isn’t important enough and that we are okay with them having less opportunity than students in other districts,” Riggins said.
The funding losses have been difficult both professionally and personally for Superintendent Douglass, a lifelong resident of the area with 28 years in the school district, first as an elementary teacher and then as a principal.
“I believe strongly in a system that supports the whole child,” said Douglass. “Arts and sports and languages are not superfluous. But that $1.4 million has to come from somewhere. All we can do is be completely transparent during the budgeting process, and listen to the community.”
But ideally Congress will step up and fulfill its promise to rural schools.
“I’d like to see the Secure Rural Schools Act renewed for at least five years,” Douglass said, “so rural communities like ours don’t have to go through this terrifying scenario again anytime soon.”