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May 13, 2014 7:17 am

EDITORIAL: Education of students in Mammoth matters more than political boundaries

Written by Ilene Olson

Politics has no place in education.

We commend the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees in Powell for looking past political rhetoric to do what’s right for 37 students whose education is in jeopardy.

Citing a decades-old law, the federal government withdrew funding earlier this school year for the education of 37 students living in Mammoth Hot Springs and attending school in Gardiner, Mont. Yellowstone officials say those payments are prohibited when a county is receiving federal payments in lieu of taxes.

That has resulted in a $500,000 budget shortfall for the Gardiner school district. Since then, educational funding for those students has figuratively been tossed around, hot-potato style, as school districts in Montana and Wyoming struggle to decide what government entity is responsible for funding their education.

On May 6, the Powell school board voted unanimously to extend the district’s boundaries to include the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park that is in Park County. As envisioned, the students will continue to attend school in Gardiner, but the Powell school district will provide educational funding for them. The change would not affect Powell’s students, schools, enrollment or test scores.

While the exact funding mechanism hasn’t been ironed out, funding for the Mammoth students’ education ultimately will come from the state of Wyoming. The Powell district likely would just serve as a conduit for Wyoming dollars to go to the Montana district.

But none of that is a done deal, and it’s still a political football at this point.

The State Board of Education and the Park County Boundary Board — made up of the Park County Commission, treasurer and assessor — will have a say in the matter. Park County commissioners and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric have expressed reservations.

A few residents objected at the school board meeting, saying the students’ parents don’t pay property taxes in Wyoming, and their education should be the federal government’s responsibility.

But these students’ education can’t wait for counties, states and the federal government to battle out the complex funding and political issues.

We agree with Greg Borcher, Powell school board vice chairman, who said, “It’s not about us versus the federal government or the Park Service or paying taxes. It’s about 37 kids and educating them, and that’s … why I think we need to step up and do this.” Board Chairman Rob McCray added, “It’s a Wyoming issue and they’re Wyoming kids.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

We understand that political issues between the National Park Service, Park County and Wyoming have existed for decades, but all involved need to look past the politics.

It’s disappointing that the Park Service took its time before announcing — mid-school year — that it would not pay the roughly $500,000 bill for the students’ education. The poor timing effectively put the Gardiner school district in crisis for the current budget year.

Of course, you can’t change what happened months ago. But officials can make wiser decisions moving forward.

It’s important to note that Wyoming already pays to educate students who live on federal land, such as Indian reservations and Air Force bases. Why should kids in Yellowstone National Park be any different?

While it’s true that residents in Yellowstone do not pay property taxes, it’s also true that these children reside in Wyoming. Their education should be paid for by the state of Wyoming, just as it is for every other Wyoming child who attends a public school.

The state can’t provide money for Mammoth Hot Springs students unless they live in a Wyoming school district. That’s why Powell school officials want to see the district’s boundaries extended.

It makes sense for kids in Mammoth to continue attending school in Gardiner, as they have for years. The Powell school district has stepped up to the plate to make that possible, and now it’s time for other officials to follow suit.

Let’s not focus on political games. Once we’re assured this will not cost local taxpayers a dime, this is an easy decision. Educate the students.

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