Margaret Bird, champion of Utah schools, retires
Trust lands • Her pioneering reforms led to $1.6B endowment.
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One of the great ironies of Margaret Bird's 40-year career in Utah schools is that by the time the land-management reforms she instigated began paying off, her family was no longer in a position to benefit.

The first year Bird did not have a child in public school happened to mark the year Utah public schools began receiving checks arising from state trust lands — after years of mismanagement that Bird helped end.

Famous as a dogged advocate for Utah schoolchildren, Bird retires soon as one of the most revered officials to have ever drawn a state paycheck. This month she leaves her post as director of the School Children's Trust Section at the Utah State Office of Education, and will be succeeded by Timothy Donaldson.

For her doctoral research, Bird had exposed how state lands were managed for the benefit of mining and grazing interests, rather than schools as required by law. Bird then led the campaign to fix the system and establish the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, in 1994.

"You had a teacher in high school who grabbed you and said you can do better. This little lady single-handedly has been that influence for our school system for over 20 years," said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell Thursday at the SITLA board meeting, which gave Bird a warm send-off. In the audience were past SITLA trustees and directors who had worked and tangled with Bird for years.

Under reforms Bird championed, the state's permanent schools trust fund has grown about a hundredfold, from $18 million in the 1980s to more than $1.6 billion today.

"It saddens me to think that for 120 years it didn't help children in Utah," Bird said. She recalled an unknown father whose complaints at a school board meeting years ago inspired her to act.

The man was upset that his kids' school lacked the resources to buy math books. Today that school receives a check for several thousands of dollars every year to make discretionary purchases that parents help determine.

To recognize her part in making that happen, the SITLA board declared Bird a Friend of the Trust.

bmaffly@sltrib.com