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School district funding has uncertain future

School district funding was on the minds of many commissioners at Tuesday's county board meeting. In other meetings the county administrator and commissioners have attended, the Secure Rural Schools Act, Thye-Blatnik Act and payments in lieu of taxes have been topics of discussion.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, passed in 2000, deals with payments the U.S. Forest Service makes to counties. Much of the money goes to local school districts, and if the act is not renewed, commissioners expressed concern that the payments will decrease--possibly as much as $400,000 in Lake Superior School District, Commissioner Tom Clifford said. It's been renewed for 2012, but the future beyond that is uncertain. Commissioner Rick Goutermont said he hoped the act would be extended for 10 years and was disappointed at the relatively short renewal.

According to a document from the Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department, the Thye-Blatnik Act was passed in 1948. It allowed the federal government to purchase resorts and private lands in what was to become the Boundary Waters. Since the counties affected--St. Louis, Lake and Cook--would no longer receive tax revenues from the privately-owned lands after they were purchased by the government, the federal government agreed to pay the counties in lieu of taxes, known as PILT dollars. A significant portion of this money goes to schools funding.

Commissioner Rich Sve and Matt Huddleston, county administrator, expressed concern at how these funds could be affected in the future, especially by the proposed land exchange bill that recently passed Minnesota House of Representatives. They named many factors that could affect payments, but they hope to have a clearer picture and some exact figures soon.

"The short answer is, there's more to come," Sve said.

The land exchange bill, introduced by Rep. Chip Cravaack, swaps school trust lands located within the Boundary Waters for land outside of the federally-protected area. The bill is being promoted as a source of increased revenue for school districts. Opponents worry that the bill, which would turn the land over to state control, could result in the land being used for mining or logging without strict federal environmental regulations. The bill passed the Minnesota House on Sept. 12 but it is unlikely to be introduced in the Senate until next year.

More flood repair discussion took place. County Highway Engineer, Al Goodman, presented his crews' most recent progress and timelines to the board. The South Airport Road culvert has been replaced, they are working on repairs on Stony River Grade, the Encampment River bridge is expected to be finished in November, and it is hoped that Big Rock Road will be drivable before winter. The fall repairs on Big Rock will be temporary and it's likely that only locals will be allowed access until the county can fully repair the road in the spring.

Sve brought up another damaged road--Blueberry Hill Road, a forestry road that has been maintained by its residents with gravel donated from the county. A resident contacted Sve about work that needs to be done on the road since floods caused damage in June. The board agreed something could be done soon.

Huddleston presented fiber optic updates to the board. The Two Harbors fiber optic headquarters remodeling project will ask for bids soon and the Silver Bay headquarters remodel won't be far behind. Discussions about phase two of the project are underway. Huddleston said they hope to create a more flexible contract in phase two. This will allow Lake Connections, the company responsible for building the network, to install its own utility poles. This has not been permitted during phase one and disputes have arisen over ownership of some of the poles.

Huddleston also said a bid has been accepted for an archaeological survey for the planned ATV trail. The survey will cost about $5000 and then "we can hopefully get the grants signed," he said. Then, construction could begin on the trail.

Commissioner Brad Jones brought up mineral rights and an Arrowhead Regional Development Commission meeting at Itasca on Oct. 18, where a presentation on mineral rights will be given.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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