School LAND Trust Program, a Precious Resource

SITLA

The message of Salt Lake City Weekly’s cover story “‘Lots for Tots”
(http://www.cityweekly.net/utah/article-501-18702-lots-for-tots-page-1.html) published in the Jan. 30 edition, seems to be that the State of Utah is irresponsibly selling off our lands for a few measly dollars for our schools. This message is growing louder in certain circles. The good news is this is completely false.

The School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is a responsible land manager. The agency complies with all laws, makes it a practice to partner with high quality companies that have strong land stewardship ethics (such as Anadarko), and employs environmental compliance personnel voluntarily.

The agency was created 20 years ago because Utah, like most states historically, was not coming close to capturing the revenue generating potential of the lands (http://le.utah.gov/~2014/bills/static/HCR004.html. Public education advocates, including the PTA and the Utah Education Association (UEA), persuaded the Legislature that the school trust is a resource too precious to squander.

But the school trust lands themselves exist thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s inspiring vision of what America should be. Jefferson envisioned a self-governing republic, which required an educated citizenry, and he saw to it that lands were set aside in trust to financially support public education.

There is no one in the country more dedicated to win-win collaborative land trades than SITLA. Numerous SITLA land exchange efforts have been, are, and will continue happening.
These exchanges may involve SITLA lands that are better suited for recreation or conservation for federal lands that are better suited for income production that is in line with the agency’s fiduciary duty.

Finally, the school trust does produce significant revenue for public schools. The School LAND Trust Program distributed close to $40 million to school community councils this year, representing 1.2 percent of the public education budget. Even more impressive, the permanent State School Fund is now worth $1.74 billion. It can be reasonably expected that within a generation, the school trust will provide 7 to 10 percent of the overall public education budget in Utah.

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Financing our public schools in Utah is not an easy task for policy makers. The school trust represents one piece of the puzzle. It’s a piece that is consistently bringing good news. That should be celebrated.

– Tim Donaldson is the School Children’s Trust Director at the Utah State Office of Education

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