Prescott, Humboldt school districts will continue in forest fees group

PRESCOTT - Governing boards for Prescott Unified School District and Humboldt Unified School District agreed Tuesday, June 30, to continue as members of - and to contribute half their federal forest fees revenues- to the Yavapai County Forest Fees Management Association.

Both districts had delayed their decision after board members raised concerns about the value districts receive from FFMA.

"I didn't see the benefit," HUSD governing board member Paul Leon said.

However, he was outnumbered when fellow board members voted 3-1 to authorize a new five-year intergovernmental agreement with the FFMA. Board member Suzie Roth was absent from the Tuesday meeting.

Prescott's governing board voted 3-0 to continue as a member, with PUSD governing board President Maureen Erickson and member John Mackin absent and not voting.

Members of both boards were reluctant to extend the agreement five years, but were comfortable with a shorter term like two or three years. However, 23 of the 25 FFMA member districts approved the five-year agreement, and Prescott and Humboldt school boards were told a shorter term was not an option.

"I didn't want to do five years," Leon said.

He said he wasn't persuaded by language in the agreement allowing districts an early termination date.

Leon said he was bothered that agreements were rushed, giving school district leaders about a month to ask questions and research the issue.

"We're doing this at the last minute," he said.

However, he said he was "comfortable with letting it go for two years" before reconsidering HUSD's membership, meanwhile looking at how the district benefits from programs and services.

Board members at Prescott Unified School District listed similar concerns Tuesday before voting, but said the exit clauses and a commitment that PUSD would more actively participate overcame their reluctance.

Administrators at both districts agreed they weren't participating enough in FFMA.

PUSD governing board member Greg Mengarelli said Prescott schools need to use services more, and district officials need to work with the FFMA board to find ways the district and the association can work together.

Yavapai County Superintendent Tim Carter explained the value of the collaborative services offered through FFMA is only realized when districts participate.

"The FFMA was, and I think still is, the motivating factor that creates value," Carter said.

He pointed to grants, federal funding reimbursement for technology expenses and the buying power of the multiple districts as factors that together help drive down costs for equipment and services provided through FFMA.

Both districts also agreed Tuesday to continue as members of the Yavapai County Educational Technology Consortium, a separate intergovernmental agency with identical membership as FFMA.

YCESA technology administrator Stan Goligoski told PUSD's governing board, "Most of it (the technology consortium) is funded by the FFMA."

Carter told PUSD board members at a June 2 meeting that the two entities are interconnected, that there is more value in being a member of both than in just one and further, that being a member of the technology consortium is not valuable unless a district is also a member of FFMA.

The funds Yavapai County schools contribute to FFMA amounted to more than $966,000 in 2014, with nearly one-fourth of that amount coming through PUSD and HUSD contributions.

In the five years since FFMA's inception, it has set aside some of those funds to cover future expenses. According to the association's fiscal report, nearly $250,000 remains encumbered for performing arts programs, teacher recruitment, spelling bees and general election costs.

Carter said the purpose of setting aside funds for future expenses arose out of the year-to-year Congressional reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program, which received a two-year reauthorization early in 2015.

U.S. Forest Service lands make up 38 percent of Yavapai County, and local governments don't collect property taxes from the federal government. Instead, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 allocates the distribution of U.S. Forest Service payments to counties.

Carter said by setting aside funds, FFMA can commit to providing services - a policy that proved valuable when Congress allowed the program to lapse at the end of 2014. Prior to the reauthorization months later, schools were expecting to lose as much as 87 percent of their funding under the program.

Under the act, the federal government gives a portion of fees and permits generated on Forest Service land to counties, including Yavapai County, which in turn use funds for two purposes: schools and roads. Yavapai County has historically split the money equally between the two.

In the 2000s, officials learned Yavapai County could double the amount it receives from the federal government by distributing funds directly to schools. Prior to 2009, Yavapai County Education Service

Agency received the funds and used them for services that benefit its 26 member districts.

The decision in the late 2000s to divert forest fees directly to school districts would have meant districts lost YCESA services, which led to the creation of the Yavapai County Forest Fees Management Association, according to Carter.

The school districts, as part of FFMA, keep half of their portion - essentially the same as what they received prior to 2009 - and pass the other half to FFMA, which supports a variety of countywide programs for schools.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9503.