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Lapwai school district depends on Impact Aid

LAPWAI, Idaho - The sun rises and sets on tiny Lapwai, Idaho, as it has for thousands of years. This town of roughly 1,100 on the banks of the Clearwater River is just over 10 miles from Lewiston in a patchwork of centuries-old, quilted foothills. Lapwai and the land that surrounds it, is home to the Nez Perce Indian Reservation - approximately 750,000 acres of a much larger area of North-Central Idaho that is considered Nez Perce Territory.

Because of its recognition of the Nez Perce Territory as a sovereign government, the U.S. cannot, by law, impose taxes to raise money for public enhancements on this land. The market value for the land is far less than the state average because Lapwai only receives tax revenue from a few plots of former Indian land that have been deeded back to private citizens. However, it does operate public facilities in this area, including Lapwai School District #341, comprising a pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high school. The district was first formed in 1911, but for years struggled to keep up with other public schools not on federally designated lands. The school system currently serves 529 students.

"Without Impact Aid, our school district would shut down," says Superintendent Harold Ott, a man with more than 20 years in federally impacted school districts in Idaho and Washington. "Impact Aid represents 29 percent of our total operating budget, and if it went away tomorrow, our district wouldn't be far behind."

Ask an average American what Impact Aid is and you're likely to get a blank stare or a guess that it has to do with international aid the U.S. provides to war-torn countries. In fact, Impact Aid is a federal program instituted by Congress under the Truman Administration in 1950 that affects more than 15 million students nationwide, from rural schools to schools in urban centers. It is the federal government's attempt to compensate school districts for lost revenue where federal ownership or federal activity adversely interferes with any or all of the basic revenue sources available to school districts: residential taxes, property taxes from business or industry, sales taxes, income taxes, and local licenses and fees. Impact Aid can be used for a variety of needs, including infrastructure, salaries, educational programs and supplies.

The program has grown from $30 million in 1950 to more than $1.3 billion in the last fiscal year. While the current number may seem hefty, the Impact Aid program hasn't been fully funded since 1969. The $1.3 billion represents only 62 percent of a fully funded program. So the 1,300 U.S. school districts like Lapwai often find that they cannot financially measure up to other school districts that are not federally impacted.

"Our school district is in dire shape regarding construction," says Ott. "Our high school was built in 1941 and hasn't seen a significant structural change since then."

Junior high and high school-aged students attend classes in a building that is far from compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, has broken windows patched with duct tape, and features its original steam piping, largely rotten from age. The mechanical system is a low-pressure steam system generated by two nearly obsolete boilers more than 60 years old. Piping is not insulated and there is evidence of steam leaks. There is no fresh air ventilation.

But the most serious and potentially dangerous problem comes in the form of alternaria, invisible mold spores that hang in the air and cling to the carpet of the school. A carpet check showed levels of alternaria three times higher than normal. Alternaria fungal spores are a main cause of allergy because the spores deposit in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, ultimately leading to pneumonia and chronic asthma.

The school sits on a wet dirt floor, a breeding ground for mold. "If you've ever entered a very old attic or barn and you inhale, the smell is unmistakable," says Ott. "It's making both our students and our teachers sick."

Out of necessity, cosmetic changes have been made at the high school, but it is evident that these solutions will be short-lived. The obvious solution is a new building, but therein lies the conundrum. "To make improvements and get the current building to code, it would cost the district $9.4 million," says Ott. "A whole new building built from scratch would cost only $7.2 million." But the school is in an area that is largely poverty-stricken and because of the Indian reservation, can't levy a tax to raise enough money for a new building.

So in 2000, Ott and the Lapwai School Board agreed to a contingency. For the last three years, the district has set aside a percentage of its Impact Aid money to create a building fund. Currently, the savings amount to $1.2 million - far from the amount needed.

The school is in the process of working with the State of Idaho to find other sources of funding. And because a lion's share of Impact Aid money has been set aside, Lapwai has been forced to seek other means of funding for desperately needed school programs, including elementary and secondary reading programs, a math program, and science programs for junior high and high schoolers.

But to keep the programs going, it's likely Lapwai will have to draw more money from its Impact Aid reserves that normally would go into its building fund. "I don't think we'll have a choice," says Ott.

The school board has made the commitment to keep funding for the construction set-aside, but questions will be raised about the viability of programs and teachers versus that of structural needs. "It's nice to have a curriculum coordinator, it's nice to have a multicultural coordinator, it's nice to have reading and math programs," said Teri Wagner, Lapwai's curriculum coordinator, "but which are more important?"

Lapwai School Board President and Nez Perce Tribe Legal Counsel Julie Kane acknowledges the quandary. "There is just not enough money to go around," she says. "We've made tough decisions in the past, but we'll have even tougher ones to come."

Elementary Principal Mike Hulverson may have put it best: "Our Success for All reading program took our students from 13 percent reading comprehension to 60 percent in the first year, and after three years we're up to 77 percent. By the same token, if Impact Aid were to go away tomorrow, all our extras and even many of our staff would be gone."

"Whenever we find ourselves looking at gridlock on the Hill over appropriation matters, we know we will have a problem," said the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools' Executive Director John B. Forkenbrock. "Under the current atmosphere of a series of continuing resolutions that keep the government going, it's not just Lapwai that has a problem. All schools that benefit from Impact Aid feel the strain of making ends meet. A handful of members on Capitol Hill seem to think that continuing resolutions are budget Band Aids until agreements can be worked out; but for schools that rely on Impact Aid to operate, continuing resolutions mean payment delays and less money with which to function."

But other members of Congress have taken notice. Impact Aid supporter and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) has been vocal, saying publicly to representatives from Impact Aid schools, "Tell your senators and representatives that Impact Aid is not like other education programs. It's not forward-funded, so a CR doesn't help you. You don't get Impact Aid in advance in July. Tell them you need their help. You need for them to tell the Administration that Impact Aid must be made available if districts experience serious economic problems."

But handling operating challenges like these is just part of the daily routine at Lapwai and Superintendent Ott shows a steely resolve. "Just keeping the district afloat is a challenge we face every day," he says. "We're doing good things, we've got good students and we will prevail."

Bryan Jernigan is the director of Communications for the National Association of Federally impacted schools. For further information E-mail him at bjernigan@sso.org.