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June 12, 2014 7:41 am

County recommends putting Yellowstone in Powell school district

Written by CJ Baker

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk addresses the Park County District Boundary Board before it unanimously recommended that the state put a portion of the park inside the Powell school district. The state had to take action after the federal government announced in January that it had to stop paying for Yellowstone students’ education. ‘None of us want to be where we are today, but I think you all would agree that if were told that it’s against the law to do something, you wouldn’t do it, either,’ Wenk said. Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk addresses the Park County District Boundary Board before it unanimously recommended that the state put a portion of the park inside the Powell school district. The state had to take action after the federal government announced in January that it had to stop paying for Yellowstone students’ education. ‘None of us want to be where we are today, but I think you all would agree that if were told that it’s against the law to do something, you wouldn’t do it, either,’ Wenk said. Tribune photo by CJ Baker

Park County officials have cleared the way for the state of Wyoming to begin paying for the education of students living in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park.

The Park County District Boundary Board — made up of the five county commissioners, the assessor and treasurer — voted grudgingly but unanimously June 5 to recommend that the Powell school district be expanded to include the northern part of the park.

The board conditioned its recommendation on a couple more assurances from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office that the expansion won’t cause future problems for Park County School District No. 1.

If the State Board of Education agrees with the county’s recommendation, Wyoming will become responsible for educating about three dozen students living in Mammoth Hot Springs.

The students would continue to be schooled in Gardiner, Mont. Park County School District No. 1 would serve as little more than a go-between, passing state money on to the Gardiner district. Powell’s schools, test scores and education funding would be unaffected; parents and students would likely be unable to tell anything has changed.

The difference is that the state would take over the Yellowstone students’ schooling costs from the federal government. Yellowstone officials had paid the bills for some 60 years before abruptly announcing in January that they could no longer do so (see sidebar on Page 3).

State and local education officials had urged the county board to recommend the expansion of the district. The board deferred action at its first meeting in May because of concerns, and board members had some more questions on Thursday:

What if an education in Montana — which is currently less expensive than Wyoming’s — becomes overly pricey? What if a future Powell school board disagrees with Montana’s curriculum? What if it becomes necessary to actually establish a school in Mammoth? Will a Montana education qualify students for a Hathaway scholarship?

But Wyoming Assistant Attorney General Michael O’Donnell said that when problems arise, the school districts involved will work them out. He said it’s routine business for other Wyoming districts that either school children from out-of-state (47 such students in the 2012-2013 school year) or who pay to have their isolated students schooled out-of-state (74 students).

“I might suggest to this board that you’re at a point here where every possible contingency has been raised and addressed,” O’Donnell said. “If you decline to expand these school districts, you strand 37 children in no man’s land (in Mammoth) without an education, and you have a vehicle to take care of them.”

Commissioner Joe Tilden took “great offense” to O’Donnell’s statements, believing Park County was getting a bad rap when the Department of Interior and Yellowstone National Park “walked away from what I believe is their obligation.”

“It just, it upsets me the federal government can wash their hands of this (and) say, ‘You guys take care of this. If you don’t, you are really bad people,’” Tilden said.

“I’m sorry you take offense, but the position of the state of Wyoming is this board needs to expand these boundaries to take care of these kids, and if you don’t, that is the consequence,” said O’Donnell, adding later, “Would I like to be able to say to you that there is some way to obtain this federal funding? Absolutely, but I don’t have a vehicle.”

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said it’s likely the federal government will never again pay for the students’ education. He called it an “unfortunate reality,” given how far the children are from the existing Powell school district.

“Should the federal government be assisting financially, logistically, with those issues? It should. Are they going to do it? I don’t believe so,” Skoric said.

Skoric remains concerned about whether he’ll be able to use Wyoming law in the park to force children to attend school if they ever refuse, but he said he’ll work through it.

He and some members of the boundary board also remained concerned that the federal government has not specifically promised that it won’t interfere with Wyoming’s educational authority in Yellowstone.

Powell school district attorney Tracy Copenhaver said the district is “comfortable” with the assurances it’s received from the federal government, but the board made its recommendation contingent on the attorney general’s office providing an opinion that the U.S. government can’t legally interfere — “so your butt’s on the line,” Commissioner Loren Grosskopf explained to O’Donnell.

The boundary board also conditioned its approval on the attorney general guaranteeing that Park County School District No. 1 will never be asked to cover past years of payments made to Montana schools.

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said that won’t happen.

“Payments weren’t made to the state of Wyoming, so it (a bill) is not going to come to the state of Wyoming,” Wenk said.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead used $497,722 of the state’s emergency funds to cover the education of the Mammoth Hot Springs students’ for the just-completed school year in Gardiner. He formally announced the payment the day before the boundary board’s meeting, and encouraged the board to expand the boundaries.

At last week’s meeting, Commissioner Tim French complained about the governor and others telling the county board — which starts the process — “this is what you’re going to do.” He said it came across as “a bit heavy-headed.”

“I think that’s what gets us riled up. We don’t want to strand any of those kids; none of us,” French said.

Feds’ legal review took 10 months

I wish I would have known either six months earlier or six months later,” says Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk.

Wenk is referring to January, when he got the official word that Yellowstone officials could no longer pay for the education of children who live inside the park. January fell in the middle of the school year and — for the Gardiner, Mont., school district — in the middle of a budget that counted on a $497,000 payment from the park to educate the 37 students who live in Mammoth Hot Springs and attend school in Gardiner. Instead, Wenk delivered the word to Gardiner officials that the federal government would be unable to pay anything.

Yellowstone officials originally discovered the problem in March 2013 during a series of federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The cuts prompted park officials to scrutinize all their accounts.

When they reviewed the law that allowed the park to pay for Yellowstone students’ education, Wenk said they discovered “what we thought was very clear language.” It indicated that when the U.S. government began making payments in lieu of taxes to Park County in 1976, that ended the government’s authority to pay for the Yellowstone students’ education.

“That’s when we first asked the question of our solicitors,” Wenk said in an interview on June 5. The Department of the Interior’s review — which included looking at Wyoming’s obligations and the park’s authority to make payments — took roughly 10 months.

“I wish it wouldn’t have taken that long,” Wenk said.

In the months between the discovery of the potential problem and the official word from the Department of the Interior in January, park officials kept the concern under their hats.

The decision to keep it quiet has drawn the ire of officials in Wyoming, Montana and Park County, Wyo.

“We didn’t want to raise a red flag, because if they (the department’s solicitors) would have said, ‘No, you can continue to make payments,’ I didn’t want people to be scurrying and doing things unnecessarily,” Wenk explained.

The superintendent noted that he went ahead and finished paying Gardiner for the 2012-2013 school year — even after the question had been raised. But Wenk also wishes the Department of the Interior’s determination had come either before or after the 2013-2014 school year. That, he said, would have avoided the confusion that arose when the news arrived in January and February.

“We control a lot of things,” Wenk said. “But we don’t control timing.”

1 Comment

  • Comment Link June 17, 2014 3:43 pm posted by James Leghorn

    What has just happened is that all of the residents and businesses in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone who pay property taxes or rent or lease from a landlord or make a mortgage payment or house payment, and even pay a utility bill, will be subsidizing everyone who lives in and every business that operates inside Yellowstone National Park, because no property tax is collected inside the Park.

    Now that the governor of Wyoming and the National Park Service has strong armed the local Park County school boundary board to include the Park County Wyoming portion of Yellowstone National Park in Park County School District #1.
    Yellowstone Park should now pay all of the property taxes on commercial buildings/improvements, equipment and all housing whether it be concession or Park Service employee that the rest of the residents and businesses of Park County Wyoming, Teton County Wyoming, along with Gallatin and Park County of Montana pay if they now want the same privileges. All of the school taxes that would be collected in the Wyoming portion of Yellowstone Park should be sent to the Wyoming School Foundation and not the local school districts to be used to make payments to the schools that those students in the Wyoming portion of Yellowstone National Park will attend either in Montana or Wyoming as the case may be. The rest of the taxes that are normally collected in each respective county that are appropriate to the different counties of the Park should be sent to those respective counties including school taxes to those counties in Montana.

    Property taxes are collected on the commercial facilities in Teton and Glacier National Parks as well as commercial facilities located on National Forest land Bureau of Land Management land, and Bureau of Reclamation land, so school funding is not an issue and neither is PILT funding.
    If PILT payments to counties discontinue in the future is Yellowstone Park going to resume paying for the education of the students that live in the Park? I would think not, and who will be left holding the bag, Wyoming taxpayers of course.

    It has always been wrong that businesses in the Park have been subsidized to the disadvantage of competitive businesses outside of the Park. All of the money Yellowstone Park has spent on education has been to the benefit to those private concessionaires and the residences that reside inside of Yellowstone’s boundary and why is it fair that the Wyoming taxpayer should now pay for that education in addition to his local school district and the Wyoming School Foundation without a penny coming out of Yellowstone in the form of property taxes?

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