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Bears Ears, politics complicate school trust issues, director says

Bears Ears, politics complicate school trust issues, director says

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SALT LAKE CITY — The full impact of the Bears Ears National Monument is not yet known, but the director of Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration made one thing clear Friday: He's averse to using school trust revenues for legal fees.

"One thing I truly believe in is not wasting the children’s money in litigation. We try very hard to mediate it out. We're trying really hard to mediate this out with the new administration. We don't quite know who the players are yet, but that will be one of the main things we try to work on," said David Ure, addressing the Utah State Board of Education Friday.

The 1.35 million-acre national monument in San Juan County includes nearly 110,00 acres of inheld school trust lands, rendering them undevelopable.

While the Department of Interior contacted the trust lands administration for a trade of the inheld lands prior to the designation on Dec. 28, SITLA's board of trustees felt the proposal was too restrictive and suitable lands for exchanges could not be identified, according to school board documents.

Trust lands were given to states by the federal government when they were granted statehood. Revenues from their development, gas or mineral extraction, grazing or sale fund permanent endowments that support state institutions, among them public schools.

Tim Donaldson, School Children’s Trust director for the State School Board, said as trust overseers, the goal is to "maximize revenue for schoolchildren today and tomorrow."

In states where school trusts are well managed, they can raise sufficient revenue that the starting wage for a teacher can be as high as $60,000 a year, such as Wyoming, he said.

"In terms of the potential, this is tax-free money for schools and it is growing fast, which makes it an extremely valuable resource in the … big picture," Donaldson said.

Fifteen years ago, the fund produced less than $5 million a year in revenue for Utah schools.

"This current year, it’s about $50 million. Next year, as Amendment B goes into effect, it will probably be $65 million," Donaldson said.


Amendment B, a voter-approved revision to the Utah Constitution, changed the distribution formula on the state's $2.1 billion-plus permanent State School Fund.

Under the amendment, earnings from the fund will be distributed every year based on a formula set by state statute.

The funds flow to the school level where community councils develop plans to help meet specific academic objectives.

Kanab High School has used its trust land money to boost high school graduation rates, Ure said, explaining the rate increased from 92 percent to 98 percent.

In such a small school, that might mean "four, five or six" more seniors graduated, but Ure said he believes future generations will benefit, too, because the graduates will have higher lifetime earnings and there will be an expectation that their children graduate from high school, too.

"As we all know, tradition has a way of following through in families," he said.

While the trust lands report pointed to a positive trajectory, Ure said addressing the inheld lands in Bears Ears National Monument poses challenges whether to trade them or hold onto them.

"With the (Bureau of Land Management), I have to trade value for value," Ure said. "But with the Legislature I have to trade acre for acre … so it's a tough situation."

Ure asked the board members to be candid with him about how SITLA handles the monument designation and overall management of school trust lands.

But when it comes to Bears Ears inholdings, exchanges could take a long time to accomplish and it will likely be complicated by policy and competing interests of other parties, such as counties.

"How do I get that out of there? I’ll be damned one way and I'll be damned the other," Ure said.

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Marjorie Cortez


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