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Study says schools’ trust-lands money minuscule

SHARE Study says schools’ trust-lands money minuscule

A recent study of the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration shows it pays a minuscule share of Utah's education expenses.

But agency officials and educators say trust-land earnings have never benefited schoolchildren more.

The Grand Canyon Trust found that trust lands income accounted for one-fourth of 1 percent of $3.3 billion in education revenues in 2000. The trust lands administration distributed $3.8 million to schools that year.

"The basic conclusion is that trust lands is now paying an absolutely negligible share of school expenses and has no prospect of doing substantively more than that, even if their most optimistic revenue projections are granted," says the Grand Canyon Trust's Bill Hedden.

The independent state agency oversees 3.7 million acres of surface lands and 4.5 million acres of surface minerals scattered in a checkerboard pattern throughout the state. It sells and develops lands and grants mineral leases to make money for Utah schools.

Proceeds, which totaled $47.7 million in 2000, go into a permanent trust fund. Schools receive a portion of the interest and dividends generated from an investment portfolio managed by the state treasurer.

The fund currently has $377 million. The agency has a goal to reach $1 billion by 2010.

Starting last year, earnings went directly to individual schools for special academic projects. Trust lands officials acknowledge payments as a percentage of the education budget are small but say they make a huge difference in hundreds of schools.

"It's just been a real boon to the schools," Kevin Carter, trust lands administration interim director, recently told the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee. "I think a number of states look at us with envy for the way we've applied these monies."

Utah is at the forefront on this issue, said Margaret Bird, State Office of Education trust lands specialist. Other states simply throw the dollars into a big pot. "And you can't point to anything the school trust lands did," she said.

A committee of parents, teachers and administrators at each school decides how to spend the money. Most opt for specific reading, writing, math or science programs.

Sevier School Board President Carolyn Washburn said the money is valuable to her district and has not been misused.

One school coupled its grant with federal money to reduce the teacher-student ratio in a kindergarten class to 15-to-1 from 22-to-1. Another used it for a tutoring program.

"Trust lands money really does come back to the grass roots," she said.

Hedden says the agency's "single-minded focus" on generating revenue through land sales and development won't help schools but could induce sprawl and fragment critical open space and wildlife habitat. The agency, which is searching for a new director, needs a new direction, he said.

The thrust, Hedden said, should be on using trust lands to provide affordable housing sites, schools, parks, education centers and preserving open space.

The trust lands administration recent sold land to the state Division of Wildlife Resources for hunting and recreation. Although the trust lands administration has been a little more conservation-minded of late, officials said its primary mission will continue to be making money for schools.

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com