State superintendent to push for timber revenues for rural districts

State schools superintendent Chris Reykdal wants to see school districts in regions where timber revenues are drawn to see more of those dollars.

In a media briefing on July 19, Reykdal described his plan to change the connection between revenue from timber harvesting on state trust lands and K–12 urban school construction, calling on legislators to dedicate more funds to projects in rural Washington.

Reykdal laid out his plan for reallocating funding from the K-12 Common School Trust, a fund that now provides a small percentage of the funding for school construction across Washington state. In his plan, a portion of revenues from timber harvested in the rural communities — which he said currently are primarily provided to school districts in urban communities — would be retained within the communities that generate the dollars.

Additionally, the state superintendent proposes the state reallocate a portion of the funds to support forest health and preservation.

“Rural communities in Washington have long generated this revenue through timber harvests and other trust land activities, but are not often the beneficiaries of it,” Reykdal said.

“We should be investing this revenue within the communities where it’s generated and using a portion of the dollars to support forest health and preservation.”

Reykdal said he will propose the change during the upcoming legislative session as part of his 2023–25 Capital Budget request.

“Common school trust revenue has been a challenging and complex conversation over many years,” said Jim Stoffer, a Sequim School District board director and a Trust Lands Advisory Committee member for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, in a statement through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

“Policies that ensure equity of revenue for our rural school districts are a step in the right direction for our students and communities,” Stoffer noted.

State school officials said fewer than half of Washington state’s school districts have been able to access the funds from timber harvesting, in part because school bonds, which allow a local community to support the construction of their schools, require 60 percent voter approval to pass.

Districts able to pass bonds and access the funding from timber revenue are located primarily in densely populated areas that are largely removed from trust land activities, such as King, Pierce and Spokane counties, they said.

Each of Sequim’s most recent four school bond attempts failed to meet the 60 percent supermajority needed, including an April 2014 proposal for $154.3 million, and proposals in February 2015 ($49.3 million), November 2015 ($49.3 million) and February 2016 ($54 million).

The last bond voters approved was for $25 million in February 1996 to build Sequim Middle School along with new classrooms (H-building) and a playfield at Sequim High School.

Local voters did approve a four-year, $15 million capital projects levy — one that needed only a 50 percent-plus-one vote to pass — in February 2021 to address a number of projects across the district, though such levies do not generally fund new school construction.

Funds coming from Common School Trust revenue has been steadily shrinking over time, state school leaders note: In the past 10 years, that funding is down from 3.35 percent to 1.38 percent of total school construction costs, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The share that comes specifically from timber revenue is even smaller, shrinking from 2 percent of total construction costs to 0.7 percent over that same period, they said.

Under Reykdal’s proposal, funding from the Common School Trust would be used to invest directly in rural school districts to serve building upgrade and replacement needs.

Reykdal said he expects the Legislature to “fully backfill” the School Construction Assistance Program with general obligation bonds or cash sources so urban districts can retain state funding.

“We are grateful for Superintendent Reykdal asking hard questions about how we can equitably fund our schools and manage our public lands,” Alyssa Macy, CEO of Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

“Today, logging revenue accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s school construction budget. The climate crisis is already harming our natural resources and communities. Now is the time to design a new future for all the people in which our state forest management enriches the well-being of Washington’s communities, provides rural schools with the support they need, and sustains the health of our forests for generations to come.”