By Ronda Rose
When I was a local PTA president, I attended a meeting where I saw a map of Utah with lots of blue dots on it representing school trust lands. I began then to learn about school trust lands, which were given to our children at statehood.
When I first saw these dots, there was only a few million dollars in the education trust fund because of mismanagement and abuse of school trust lands. I learned this was in contrast to other states that had managed their trust lands wisely and had billions to show for it.
A few PTA moms became aware of what was going on, and PTA worked with stakeholders to have the School and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA) formed by the Legislature.
SITLA receives no tax dollars. It is not beholden to any special interest groups. Its sole responsibility is to raise money for the education of the children of Utah. The lands it leases or sells are not public lands; they belong to the children of Utah.
These lands often adjoin Bureau of Land Management lands or national parks and other federally owned land, and since SITLA cannot afford to put up fences around all of its property, hunters are allowed to hunt and the public is allowed access. But this does not change the fact that they are not public property, or change the duties of SITLA to use the lands to raise money for the benefit of the children of Utah.
The fact that Gov. Gary Herbert was able to delay SITLA performing its duty to lease land for drilling in the Book Cliffs because of a special interest group — hunters — worries me. I worry we are headed back to elected officials being able to stop our children’s education fund from growing in order to garner votes and campaign money.
Trust land monies make a difference in our local schools. The revenue garnered from trust lands are all reinvested, with the dividends and interest sent to all neighborhood and charter public schools.
School community councils, composed mostly of parents, decide how best to spend the money on their schools’ most pressing academic needs. This money can be used to hire aides or buy textbooks, computers and library books, or on reading programs or other educational needs.
When I first worked with my school community council we had a few thousand dollars to spend. We bought a math program that would allow our students at the middle school to work at their own level. The math teachers were able to meet each child’s needs and our math scores went up. Now each school receives tens of thousands of dollars each year and is able to address the academic needs of its students.
If SITLA is allowed to continue to manage trust lands without special interests determining what it can and cannot do, the fund will continue to grow. If it has to bow down to special interest groups for legislators or the governor, the fund will not grow, and the children of Utah will not receive the money due them.
Ronda Rose is legislative vice president of the Utah PTA.
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