School trust lands: A forgotten legacy
Even at a time when drought and fire ravage our beautiful state, there is so much about the land of Colorado that remains little known. In particular, the issue of public lands and their use is very poorly understood.
When most people think of public lands, they think of national parks. There is, however, a much less-known category of public land that is a legacy from the Founding Fathers of our country, one they intended to benefit our school children for as long as our nation should exist.
I am talking about our school trust lands – a public treasure that the public knows little about. It is worth paying attention to this issue at a time when our state budget is in difficulty and the rising costs of education are putting great pressure both on local and state revenues.
First, a little history might help.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had to borrow money from the states to support our struggle for independence. After the war they didn’t have money to repay the debt, but they did have land. So, they made a grant of federal lands to every existing state and the future states, but with the proviso that all monies gained from these lands must be used to support education.
In the older states of the East, very little of this land remains, but in the newer Western states, very large tracts are school trust lands. In Colorado these lands amount to almost seven million acres.
What separates the Western states is not just the amount of school trust lands, but the difference in the laws passed over the years that determine how the lands are used and how the income monies are managed.
Some Iands have been sold off, some exchanged for other lands, and others are leased to produce revenue.
Some states have laws that require the investment of significant amounts for the purpose of building up the principal of the trust monies. New Mexico for example, has built up its principal to an amount of several billion dollars. Needless to say, principal of that size can generate pretty hefty contributions to education just from the interest income.
Another example is Utah where laws were passed in recent years to create a long term investment strategy that may one day allow the school trust land income to pay all of the state’s K-12 education expenses.
Colorado currently has about $300 million in its school trust fund. Over the years some good things have been done with this money, but the problem is that our laws make no provision to seriously build up this amount over the long term. Current law allows each year’s income to be spent in its entirety, usually by just dumping it into the state’s general fund to offset other expenditures.
The temptation to use every available dollar every year is understandable, but very shortsighted.
How much better it would be to invest these monies wisely and build a real nest egg for our children’s future. This would be much like the many parents who put money into interest-bearing accounts to provide a college fund for their children. It is not easy for them to take that money out of their current income, but they know it is the right thing to do.
Shouldn’t we encourage state government to be similarly prudent where our children’s education is at stake?
If we are to make better use of our school trust land monies, two things must be done.
First, we must educate the public as to what is at stake and what can be done. Without this awareness, the status quo will never change.
Secondly, there must be a unified campaign to seek needed changes in the law.
Fortunately, we are seeing the beginning of just such a unified effort. Organizations representing teachers, administrators, and local school boards have joined with the State Board of Education and our State Treasurer to promote this effort.
This campaign will not be easy or quick, but it definitely will be worth the effort. Surely something that helps both children and taxpayers can rally a broad base of support.
Years of service as a state and local official have taught me that new challenges require new ideas. Improving the yield from our school trust lands is an idea whose time has come.
Pamela Suckla is the Third Congressional District State Board of Education Member. She can be reached by calling (970) 677-2290 or by e-mail at DisranchStarband.net.
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