February 8, 2012 | LXXI, No. 45

Congress gets after USBR on school issue

School leader is optimistic

The Grand Coulee Dam School District is getting help for its efforts to fund a new school construction from Eastern Washington’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers

In separate actions, both Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep “Doc” Hastings have taken up the school district’s interest. McMorris Rodgers represents Eastern Washington’s 5th District, which includes the east side of Coulee Dam. Hastings represents the 4th District, which covers Central Washington and abuts the 5th at Coulee Dam. Both are Republicans.

McMorris Rodgers fired off a stern letter Feb. 3, to Keith McGowan, the environmental protection specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Despite its protestation,” McMorris Rodgers wrote, “I believe the Bureau has the authority to support the school district’s needs. The very act that the Bureau cites as basis for no action is the very act that gives the federal government the ability to support the needs of the Coulee community.”

Rep. McMorris Rodgers refers to a statement within the Coulee Dam Community Act of 1957 which states: “The secretary (Interior) is authorized to enter into contracts with the municipality whereby either party might undertake to render to the other such services in aid of the performance of activities and functions of the municipality and of the Department of the Interior within or near Coulee Dam as will, in the Secretary’s judgment, contribute substantially to the efficiency or economy of the operations of the Department of the Interior.”

The school district has been looking in every nook of the federal budget to find help in replacing aging school structures, which would require more taxing capacity than the district has, because of the large federal presence. The district is even seriously considering a lawsuit.

“I don’t believe there is a more visible example of the federal government’s involvement in the community than the school district,” McMorris Rodgers wrote. “Nor is there a more visible example of the federal government’s failings than the school district.

“What is more disappointing is the long-standing recognition by Congress and stakeholders that the Coulee community lacks a sufficient tax base to support the needs of the school district and the federal government’s failure to provide much needed assistance. ... Ninety-nine percent of the surrounding land is owned by either the federal or state government. This means that approximately one percent of the community is being asked to support the needs of the Grand Coulee Dam School District.

“It is my understanding that the estimated cost for the John Keys III Pumping Plant project is approximately $400 million. Thus, there is no better way of reaffirming support than by helping to support the school district’s effort to raise $46 million to build a safe and suitable school facility and consider including this cost in the final JKPGP project estimate.”

Rep. Hastings provided help in another way.

Hastings, working with the House Education and Workforce Committee, introduced a bill, HR 3896, the Rural Schools Fairness Act, which would amend the Impact Aid program.

The bill would expand eligibility for the emergency and modernization grants within the Impact Aid program to schools where more than 10 percent of the district is nontaxable due to a federal presence. The bill also prohibits the Department of Education from increasing either a 10-percent land ownership threshold or a 40-percent federally impacted student threshold for eligibility from year to year.

“A significant percentage of land in my district is federally owned, and I have long believed that students should not suffer because the federal government has taken away a community’s taxable land,” said Hastings. “I have heard far too many stories about schools in Central Washington that are unable to address serious safety risks because they do not have the tax base to secure a construction bond, and I believe it is past time for the federal government to step up its commitments to these students.”

The legislation was specifically written to ensure that GSDSD is eligible to apply for these grants.

“This is an important development,” district Superintendent Dennis Carlson said. “Now the district will potentially have another granting source to help us with our efforts to build new facilities.”

Shortly after the school district’s board instructed Carlson to look into filing suit against the federal government, Bureau officials asked to meet with Carlson. While the results of that meeting haven’t developed as yet, there has been a flurry of activity at both the state and federal level.

“I am more optimistic now than ever that eventually we will get access to the funds we need for new schools,” Carlson said.

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