The Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees unanimously agreed Tuesday night to extend the district’s boundaries to include the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park that is in Park County. But it’s not a done deal.
The Park County Boundary Board — made up of the county commissioners, treasurer and assessor — must decide whether to expand the Powell school district’s boundaries.
The commissioners and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric — who’s advising the boundary board — have expressed reservations.
The board will host a public hearing on the issue at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Cody library.
The issue comes after the National Park Service stopped paying for around three dozen students in Mammoth Hot Springs to attend school in Gardiner, Mont. Announced early this year, the decision left the Gardiner school district with a $500,000 budget shortfall for the current school year.
Complex legal, jurisdictional and political issues have since surrounded the question of who pays for the education of students living in Yellowstone National Park — the federal government or the state of Wyoming.
But Powell school officials see one priority: education for 37 children living in Mammoth.
“From my point of view, it’s not about us versus the federal government or the Park Service or paying taxes,” said Greg Borcher, vice chairman of the school board. “It’s about 37 kids and educating them, and that’s … why I think we need to step up and do this.”
Other board members voiced their agreement.
Chairman Rob McCray said the kids in Mammoth Hot Springs deserve an education.
“I think it’s a Wyoming issue, and they’re Wyoming kids and need to be educated by Wyoming,” he said.
The expansion of the school district would not affect Powell’s students, schools or test scores, as Mammoth students would continue to attend school in Gardiner. The Powell district would likely just serve as a conduit for state of Wyoming dollars to go to the Montana district.
Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell said the exact dollar amount provided by the state of Wyoming would go through the Powell school district and directly to the Gardiner district.
The board’s unanimous vote followed public comments. Three of four speakers opposed the proposal.
“Until they pay property taxes, Wyoming shouldn’t spend one dime on them,” said Keith Dahlem of Wapiti.
As a child growing up three and one-half miles outside of Yellowstone’s East Entrance in the 1950s, Dahlem attended school in Cody. His family paid taxes on property on Forest Service land and on a house in Cody that they purchased when he went into junior high.
Dahlem said he’s concerned there’s not a penny of property taxes — which generally fund the state’s education system — paid in Yellowstone National Park.
The U.S. Department of the Interior does give Park County “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” that’s based on a complex formula that includes the number of federal acres in the county; Yellowstone officials say they can’t continue to fund the Mammoth students’ education because they recently realized that decades-old laws prohibit those payments if the county is receiving PILT funds.
Dahlem said that’s “the out they’re using so they don’t have to fund their students anymore.”
He asked what happens when the PILT money isn’t funded. Last year’s PILT funds weren’t approved until the farm bill passed and was signed into law in February, Dahlem said.
Mike Christiansen, who owns and operates Shoshone Lodge near the East Entrance, said his family has rented a place in Powell for the last two years to attend local schools.
“If the park isn’t going to pay personal property taxes ... then those folks should get a P.O. box in Gardiner, become a Montana resident and pay taxes on their income, then it would be a Gardiner issue,” he said. “Because that’s what we do for our children.”
Steve Torrey of Cody told the school board it’s a Yellowstone funding issue and that the Park Service needs to reopen its school in Mammoth, which it closed in 2008.
Kids in kindergarten through eighth grade attended the school in Mammoth, but high school students have always gone to Gardiner, said Dan Rhodes of Mammoth. Rhodes has served more than eight years as a non-voting Mammoth representative on the Gardiner school board.
“It’s been made clear that that school will never reopen,” Rhodes said of the K-8 school in Yellowstone.
Fortunately, Gardiner welcomed all of the Mammoth children, he said, adding the communities have a long history of partnership.
Following the Park Service’s decision earlier this year, Rhodes said “our community knows that it takes courage to get through times of uncertainty.
“It takes courage to ignore political rhetoric, to accept a challenge that you did not ask for and to do what is best for the education of Wyoming children,” he said.
He thanked the school board for its consideration and said, “I look forward to partnering with you in the very near future.”
Tracy Copenhaver, the school district’s attorney, said the state constitution and Supreme Court decisions make it clear that education for Wyoming children is the responsibility of the state.
“There’s no exceptions for ‘except those living on federal ground’ or ‘except those living in Yellowstone National Park,’” Copenhaver said. He cited examples of Wyoming educating students who live on federal ground, such as the Air Force base in Cheyenne and Indian reservations.
“There’s no other piece of federal land in the state of Wyoming that I know of where we don’t educate kids,” he said.
Copenhaver said he’s concerned about statements that educating Mammoth students should be a federal responsibility.
“Politics is somehow getting in the way of educating kids,” Copenhaver said.
In a separate Tuesday night meeting, the Cody school board unanimously voted to support the expansion of the Powell school district boundary to include Mammoth. Given that the Powell district already abuts the northern part of Yellowstone, Park County School District No. 6 Board Chairman Dossie Overfield said it “was kind of common sense” that Powell’s district, and not Cody’s, would be the one to expand.
“I applaud our friends to the east (in Powell) for taking this on, solving this problem,” said Cody school board trustee Jake Fulkerson. “I think it is the state’s responsibility. I’m glad they stepped up; makes complete sense to me.”
(CJ Baker contributed reporting to this article.)