Friday, January 25, 2013

New school trust land study examines a diminished legacy

photo of wild lands
The concept of school trust lands has been around since 1785, when Congress set aside Section 16 in every township for the benefit of schools.

But a recent study from Utah State University’s Center for the School of the Future has found that nationwide, most of that land is no longer serving its intended purpose.

The study, entitled A Magnificent Endowment: American's School Trust Lands, can be downloaded from the CSF website. Its findings were recently reported in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“In every state, the courts have reiterated that School Trust Lands and Permanent School Funds are intended to benefit public schools and students—and no one else,” the report states.

“Even so, lax enforcement, competing priorities, and even malfeasance have reduced School Trust Lands by two-thirds nationwide. Although much of the original grants have been lost, some states have preserved and strengthened the legacy of School Trust Lands through careful management.”

The state-by-state report indicates how many acres of the original trust lands remain, how much revenue they generate, and how the money is administered. Here are some examples:

photo of Richard West
CSF Executive Directtor
Richard West
Wyoming started out with 3.4 million acres and retains a little more than 3 million, which generated $259 million in revenue in 2011. Most of that money came from minerals. California had more than 5 million acres at statehood and now retains only 469,000 of surface lands and about 1.3 million acres of mineral rights. These lands generated $6 million in 2011.

“Twenty-five years ago, we could have been California,” said Richard West, the study’s principal investigator. At the time, Utah’s trust lands were being sold off at an alarming rate. Watchdogs—including the Utah Education Association—spoke out. The Utah Legislature intervened and Utah began treating the school trust lands like a business.

Utah once had six million acres of school trust land, of which 3.3 million remain. That land generated $89 million in gross revenue in the 2011 fiscal year.

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