After hearing three and a half hours of public comments and differing legal opinions on Wednesday, the Park County Commission, assessor and treasurer said they need more information before deciding whether to recommend expanding the Powell school district’s boundary to include the northern part of Yellowstone.
Despite the delay — to the afternoon of June 5 — some members of the Park County District Boundary Board indicated they will ultimately recommend expansion of Park County School District No. 1.
“The writing’s on the wall that we’re probably going to be changing the boundaries,” said Park County Assessor Pat Meyer. The chairman of the boundary board, Commissioner Bucky Hall, similarly said it was a matter of “when.”
Expanding the Powell district to include Yellowstone would not directly impact Powell’s schools or students. What it would do is clear the way for the state of Wyoming to begin paying for the education of about three dozen students living in Mammoth Hot Springs. Those 37 students would almost certainly continue to receive their education in Gardiner, Mont. All the Powell school district would do is serve as a conduit for state money headed to the Gardiner district.
The Mammoth students have been in limbo since January, when Yellowstone National Park officials abruptly announced they could no longer pay for the students’ education. Yellowstone officials and Department of Interior attorneys concluded that, under federal law, the government actually should have stopped making those payments some 37 years earlier.
The decision was effective immediately, taking away some $500,000 that the Gardiner school district had counted on for the current school year.
Mammoth residents then turned to Wyoming for help, sending Park County officials a petition in February asking to have their community included in a Wyoming school district.
Mead has agreed to cover Gardiner’s immediate $500,000 shortfall with some of the state’s emergency funds, Michael O’Donnell, a special assistant in the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, told the boundary board.
Mead’s action takes some of the urgency out of the boundary board’s decision, but it’s only a short-term fix. O’Donnell urged the board to solve the problem by voting to expand the Powell district.
He said he has “reluctantly” concluded the federal government was correct to stop payments — even if the timing was “inhumane.”
O’Donnell said he was speaking for Mead, Attorney General Peter Michael, the Department of Education and — in what he called a rare agreement with Mead — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
“Both the superintendent and the governor support this effort and it’s because of the need to take care of 37 school children in Mammoth and the surrounding areas and also because of the law,” O’Donnell said. “There is a Wyoming state constitutional obligation to educate every kid in this state no matter where they live: whether they live in Yellowstone, whether they live in Cody or Powell, whether they be on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne ... no matter where.”
Tracy Copenhaver, a Powell attorney who represents Park County School District No. 1, concurred.
But Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric gave the board a dissenting opinion, based on his own research.
While Wyoming does have an obligation to educate all the children within the state, Skoric said Yellowstone is unlike all of Wyoming’s other federal lands in that it is “an exclusive federal jurisdiction.” Under that designation, he said the federal government possesses all the authority of the state — including over education.
“Wyoming has no authority within Yellowstone National Park,” Skoric said. He said that was the position of the Wyoming attorney general’s office in the 1940s and is what prompted the federal government to begin paying for education of students living within the park.
“It’s not merely some massive oversight that for 142 years, the state of Wyoming has not been educating students within Yellowstone National Park,” Skoric told the board.
The solution, he said, is to have Mead ask Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to give the state concurrent jurisdiction over education in Yellowstone under a process known as relinquishment.
“That might address our concerns,” said Commissioner Tim French, a member of the boundary board.
Without the federal government relinquishing those rights, Skoric asked what would happen if the Powell school board didn’t want the Wyoming students to receive a Montana education in the future. How would a school be created in Mammoth if a need arose? As Park County attorney, would he have jurisdiction to prosecute parents in Mammoth if they didn’t send their children to school?
The boundary expansion “was brought upon us by the timing of the federal government, and their actions and how they handled this, that everybody’s under a rush to do it — rather than have some time to appropriately mete out these issues so they don’t come up in the future,” Skoric said.
Copenhaver and O’Donnell, however, say Wyoming already has jurisdiction over the Yellowstone students and the right to provide their education.
“Frankly, I think we’re in a stronger position to say (to the federal government), ‘These are our rights. These are our kids. These are our responsibilities. If you don’t like it, do it,’” O’Donnell said.
“I don’t think we ought to have to go beg anybody in the federal government for permission to do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t think you need to do that,” Copenhaver said, adding later that, “This is the exact opposite of what I’m used to doing, which is fighting for state’s rights and keeping the feds out of our lives.”
In a Monday interview with the Tribune, Hill expressed similar thoughts.
“I would say that we just need to tell — instead of ask — the federal government that we’re annexing a part of Wyoming into one of our districts,” she said. Hill noted that state law requires the entire state to be drawn into school districts.
For reasons that are unclear, the northern part of Yellowstone — the part inside Park County — is the only part of the state not within a school district. Teton County School District No. 1 includes the southern part of the park, though Skoric said there are no students there today.
Copenhaver questioned if the concerns about educational jurisdiction and its relinquishment were “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“I believe we’re making a major issue over this because it is a major issue,” Commissioner Lee Livingston responded. “This isn’t something that just should be fixed in a week. It’s been going on for years and years and there’s just a lot of unanswered questions.”
Commissioners planned to discuss today (Tuesday) whether to ask Mead to seek relinquishment.
Around 30 people attended last week’s meeting in the Cody library.
Several people spoke in support of the expansion, including a representative from Xanterra (the operator of the lodging and dining facilities in the park), two members of the Gardiner school board, the Gardiner school’s superintendent and representatives from the Powell and Cody school boards.
Wade Vagias, who works as Yellowstone Park’s management assistant but was speaking as a husband and father, told the boundary board it wasn’t an issue of state’s rights or taxation.
“I believe at the end of the day this is about doing what’s right for children,” he said.
In contrast, Cody resident Steve Torrey told the board it’s a funding issue and a political one. He said the students’ education is being used by park officials as a way to “game the system” and “pass the buck.”
“If the Mammoth residents were to reside in Gardiner or Park County, Montana, as they should, perhaps Park County, Montana, would have the resources it needs to support its own school,” Torrey said.
In a May 6 interview with the Tribune, Commissioner French also said he thinks Mammoth residents should move out of park and live in Gardiner. French described them as living “in a no man’s land up there” and questioned why there are government homes in the park.
At Wednesday’s meeting, French said that everybody on the district boundary board has the children’s best interests at heart.
“I think it’s just a legal thing we’re trying to get sorted out, but we want those kids educated,” he said.
“We all believe that, that children need (to be) educated. It’s how do we get the best road map to getting there and getting us the best possible results in doing that,” Skoric said.
If the boundary board recommends expanding the Powell district, it would move to the State Board of Education for its consideration.