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July 08, 2014 7:20 am

EDITORIAL: Put politics aside, expand district to include YNP students

Written by Tessa Schweigert

A green light unexpectedly turned yellow when a group of county officials decided to reconsider their decision to expand the Powell school district to include Yellowstone National Park.

The county, along with local school officials, had previously given the expansion a green light, and we applauded them for that.

It makes sense that Wyoming be responsible for educating students who live in Wyoming.

Some three dozen students live in Mammoth Hot Springs, located in Yellowstone National Park and in Park County, Wyo. For decades, Mammoth students attended school in Gardiner, Mont., and the federal government paid the bill. When federal officials abruptly announced this year that they would no longer pay the roughly $500,000-a-year bill, Wyoming officials and local school leaders stepped up.

State officials agreed to pay for the students’ education in Gardiner, but they must be within a Wyoming school district to make those payments possible.

Park County School District No. 1 leaders welcomed the Mammoth students, voting unanimously this spring to include Yellowstone in the Powell school district.

Last month, the Park County Boundary Board gave its unanimous support to expanding the Powell school district’s boundaries, and the expansion awaited final approval by the State Board of Education.

But now, the process is idling at a yellow light. Park County officials recently called a meeting to reconsider their earlier decision. Originally scheduled for July 21, that meeting has been postponed.

“I thought it was all resolved,” said Park County Clerk Jerri Torczon.

“Apparently, we were mistaken,” said Commissioner Bucky Hall, chair of the county’s district boundary board.

We were mistaken, too, in assuming the district’s expansion was basically a done deal.

County officials are concerned that the federal government may interfere with Wyoming’s right to educate children living in Yellowstone. They also want an agreement to indemnify the Powell school district from the millions of dollars of federal payments to Montana schools over the past few decades.

We understand county officials’ concerns and frustration with the federal government, because it was their lack of communication and poor timing that put the Gardiner school district and Mammoth students into a crisis.

Yellowstone officials originally discovered that they could no longer pay for the Mammoth students’ education in March 2013. But those outside the Park Service — Gov. Matt Mead, the Wyoming Department of Education, the attorney general or Gardiner school officials — did not know about the halt in funding until January.

The legal review took 10 months, and by the time the decision was announced in early 2014, the Gardiner district was already halfway through a budget that counted on the $497,000 payment from the Department of the Interior.

Meanwhile, education for 37 students in Mammoth hung in limbo — and, unfortunately, it continues to.

While the federal government should have handled this situation better, Park County officials still have the opportunity to resolve the issue and avoid a long and drawn-out process.

We worry that the school district expansion is becoming bogged down in politics and is heading toward lengthy and expensive litigation. The Powell school district has not expressed the concern that county officials feel.

In coming weeks, we encourage county, state and school officials to resolve the issues that are delaying the expansion process and to put politics aside. The political issues at play run deep.

The county, state and Park Service have a long history of grappling over issues and jurisdiction — wolves, Sylvan Pass and the Beartooth Highway all come to mind. Now, there’s resentment that residents in Mammoth don’t pay property taxes into Wyoming’s education system, and that the federal government’s payments in lieu of taxes fall short (assuming they even continue to be made).

There are real concerns, but in the meantime, officials must consider what’s best for students who live in Mammoth.

In the end, what matters most is that Wyoming has a responsibility to provide a K-12 education for every child in the state — regardless of where they live.

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