From SITLA To Your School
Do you know how Trust Lands funds end up at your school?
When you talk about trust lands, you must go quite a way back into history, because the history of trust lands goes back nearly as far as the history of our country. The idea of trust lands began with Thomas Jefferson who believed:
“A strong democracy is founded upon education for all.”
Jefferson was inspired with an idea to use land income as a supplement to school funding. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a mechanism for funding public education by giving states sections of land as they entered the union. Today there are 38 states in the U.S. that have these special trust lands.
It Starts with the Land
Utah received sections 2, 16, 32, 36 in every six-by-six mile township across the entire state for public education and other beneficiaries. (The SITLA logo highlights those 4 sections!) In cases where one of the four sections was already claimed through homesteading, mining grants, or railroad grants, the trust was instead offered in-lieu grants allowing them to select from other available lands.
Of the 7 million acres granted at statehood, SITLA manages 3.4 million surface acres, and 4.4 million mineral acres today. Most of these lands were sold during the first 35 years of statehood, which was a very effective way of getting land into private ownership. Did you know that one-third of Utah’s private land holdings were once trust lands?
An important thing to note is that trust lands, despite being entrusted to Utah, are not public lands. They belong to the Trust’s beneficiaries. Alongside public education (which receives 96% of the revenue generated from trust lands) SITLA’s other beneficiaries include:
- Special Education Institutions
- Utah School for the Deaf
- Utah School for the Blind
- Higher Education Institutions
- University of Utah
- School of Mines
- Miners Hospital
- Utah State University
- State Teaching Colleges
- University of Utah
- Public Institutions
- Public Buildings
- Juvenile Justice Services
- Utah State Hospital
- State Reservoirs
Since 1994, SITLA follows standard trust principles and manages trust lands with undivided loyalty to and for the financial support of trust land beneficiaries. In language unique to Utah, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled that the trust beneficiaries “do not include other governmental institutions, the public at large or general welfare of the state”. But that doesn’t mean that SITLA manages trust lands without very careful considerations and stewardship to optimize land use to provide the greatest benefit to these beneficiaries today and in the future.
So how does the Trust Lands Administration make money from the land for our beneficiaries? SITLA is divided into three business groups:
- Energy & Minerals
- Real Estate Planning & Development
In most years, energy from hydrocarbons and other sources generates the largest portion of revenue. However, last year most of SITLA’s revenue was generated by the Real Estate Planning & Development group. SITLA has large landholdings in rapidly developing areas such as St. George, Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain, and Moab. We work to identify well-established and well-capitalized partners with whom we can work to bring these properties through the development process and onto the market.
SITLA also leases land for renewable energy sources such as: geothermal, wind turbines, and photovoltaic solar energy facilities throughout the state. One exciting renewable energy project happening on SITLA land is the ACES green hydrogen storage happening in Millard County. We’re always seeking additional opportunities for renewable energy leases.
Almost all trust lands are permitted for grazing, timber and seed harvest, camping, and even rockhounding! We also lease lands for commercial and agricultural uses. Nearly every high-elevation piece of trust land has a telecommunication lease, which brings in good money on a relatively small footprint. One of the coolest parts of working at SITLA is being able to partner with people who have all kinds of ideas for ways to use trust lands. Did you know trust lands are being used for Mars mission simulation, and ejector seat testing?
SITLA is actively involved in several conservation projects, including land exchanges with the federal government; endangered species mitigation; and stewardship projects on select trust land parcels. Several currently listed, or potentially listed, endangered species have interface with trust lands. The trust has worked with other partners on conservation agreements in an effort to avoid listing of endangered plant species, because the Endangered Species Act does not protect plant species on trust lands, only on federal lands. Animals are protected regardless of land owner or manager. We work to convey sensitive lands out of trust ownership so that they may be appropriately protected. One way to do this is to work with conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy or the Trust For Public Lands. Another method we use is land exchanges with the federal government.
We are also obligated by law to protect cultural, or archaeological, resources on trust lands. When trust lands are developed or sold, they first must be surveyed for the presence of cultural resource sites. Typically, the costs of these surveys are passed on to our clients. Did you know SITLA has its own in-house team of archaeologists? We’ve helped to protect some world-class sites on trust lands, including the incredible Great Hunt Panel in Nine-Mile Canyon.
The Permanent Fund
All of the revenue SITLA generates (minus a few administrative and operating costs for the agency so we don’t use taxpayer money) is deposited into something called the Permanent Fund. The Permanent School Fund has grown from about $50 million in 1994 to approximately $3.2 billion today. The State of Utah School & Institutional Trust Funds Office (SITFO) was created to optimize these funds. SITFO is overseen by a Board of Trustees chaired by the Utah State Treasurer. The state assembled a team of investment professionals with significant financial experience in both government and the private sector. They are united with the education community, legislature, and state government, and together they help fulfill Jefferson’s vision by managing and growing revenue for Utah schools, opening the door for a future of well-educated, successful citizens.
Interest on Investments & Annual Fund Distribution
SITFO’s mission is to responsibly maximize the return on the invested principal of the School and Institutional Trusts for the current and future benefit of Utah’s education programs. Each fund endowment is invested by SITFO and its board of trustees. Each year, capital gains, interest and dividends are distributed to every school in the state based on student enrollment numbers.
Consequently, annual distributions from the Permanent School Fund have grown from about $10 million in 2005 to an estimated $90+ million this school year. 10% of the annual distribution is divided equally among all school districts and the remaining 90% is distributed on a per-pupil bases.
School Community Councils
Each school has an elected School Community Council (SCC) made up of teachers, parents, and the principal, who determine the greatest needs at their school and how these trust funds should be spent. These funds are discretionary, with the only restriction being that they be spent on academics. The SCC at your school comes up with a plan for how to spend trust money, and submits that to the School LAND Trust program at the Utah State Board of Education.
The School Learning and Nurturing Development (LAND) Trust program is administered by the School Children’s Trust section at the Utah State Board of Education, and was established by the legislature in 1999, to distribute a portion of the annual earnings from the permanent School Fund through districts and charter schools to all public schools in the state.
The section administers the School LAND Trust program, provides training for all involved in preparing and approving LAND Trust fund plans, and participates on the Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Committee. The Advocacy Committee provides policy oversight to the Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office that monitors SITLA and SITFO.
The School Children’s Trust section also staffs the Trust Lands Advisory Committee (TLAC), an official advisory committee to the Utah State Board of Education tasked with advising the Board regarding School Community Councils, the School LAND Trust Program, and issues related to school trust lands and funds that may affect the program. TLAC is comprised of education stakeholders including local school board members, parents, principals, educators, superintendents and district staff members.
School Community Councils hold elections annually to fill open seats. Local school boards set election timelines, and council elections may be held in the fall, or in the spring before the last week of school. Elections should be held at a consistent time for at least four years.
Schools participating in the School LAND Trust program are required by Utah Code and Utah State Board of Education (USBE) Rules to have certain items on their individual school website, and to provide notice of meetings on the school website one week before the council meeting is held. The School Children’s Trust section of the USBE has been tasked with reviewing a portion of school websites annually to determine compliance.
You can learn much more about School Community Councils and how to become more involved with yours at the LAND Trust website here.
How a few Utah schools have used their SITLA Funds…
At the monthly board meetings held by SITLA’s Board of Trustees (which are open to the public) one of our favorite features is the portion where we highlight different ways in which SITLA funds are being used in schools around the state. Below are links to downloadable PDFs for a few of the PowerPoint presentations we have shared in those meetings, so that you can start brainstorming additional ways your school might be able to use LAND Trust funds.