January 18, 2013 12:40:22 PM
STARKVILLE -- New findings by researchers at Utah State University show that Mississippi has lost nearly 25 percent of its school trust land, commonly known as 16th Section land.
But schools in the state still earned a healthy $71 million in land trust revenue in Fiscal Year 2011.
School trust lands were granted to states entering the union as part of the General Land Ordinance, adopted by the nation's Continental Congress in 1785. The lands were meant to be managed in order to help establish, support and maintain schools. Each township in the state is divided into one square mile sections, and the title to the land in the 16th Section of each township is held by the state. Unlike many other states, which manage all of their state's school trust land, Mississippi leaves it to individual local school boards to lease and manage these lands.
The Utah State study shows Mississippi is doing comparatively well holding on to a resource that Margaret Bird, director and founder of Utah's Children's Land Alliance Supporting Schools (CLASS), thinks has been grossly misused and undervalued.
Some states, like California and Nevada, have lost more than 90 percent of their land. California was originally granted 6.1 million acres, but today, only 469,000 surface acres remain.
"When you realize that 30 states have lost all of their assets that should have been supporting schools, it is quite the cautionary tale," Bird said. "Maybe we better find out how much land we have, and maybe we need to better understand how it's managed and what the issues are in different states."
Bird is dedicated to educating and advocating for the prudent and profitable use of school trust lands and permanent funds. CLASS partnered with Utah State to complete the land trust study -- the first of its kind since 1911.
Richard West, executive director of the Center for the School of the Future at Utah State, assisted with the study and said his research showed there were an untold number of reasons school trust lands have been slowly forfeited, but more often than not, it can be chalked up to slick politics.
"We aren't historians and we don't know all of the reasons," West said. "But we do know stories of sales of these trust lands made at ridiculously low prices to friends, family members and cronies of politicians in various states."
The Oktibbeha County School Board can attest to these kinds of transactions. Just last May, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks forfeited a 25-year recreational lease on 312 acres of 16th Section land that included the Oktibbeha County Lake. The MDWFP's decision not to renew their lease with the school board came after a reappraisal of the land came back at $100 an acre. While MDWFP held the lease, they were paying $0.16 an acre.
"That is a common story in a lot of these states," Bird said. "Whether it's the National Guard getting it for 10 cents an acre or Wildlife Resources buying a couple thousand acres for $12 an acre."
These leases were common throughout much of the state until 1978, when Mississippi passed the School Land Reform Act, which brought more regulations on how to manage the 16th Section land and established different land classifications and valuations for 16th Section property.
The School Land Reform Act ensured school boards could not legally accept anything less than the appraised value of the property, which would be priced according to identical private land.
"It all turned a corner with that act," said Mike Ainsworth, land manager for a number of school districts' 16th Section land, including Oktibbeha County's. "It set the guidelines, and that's when the school districts really started seeing the benefit of revenue (they) deserved from these leases."
Compared to today's revenue of $71 million from 16th section land, Mississippi was only generating about $3 million from leases in the 1960s.