May 13, 2016

Commissioners wish they hadn’t put Yellowstone in Powell school district

The federal government might send fewer dollars to Park County this year. That has Park County commissioners wishing they could force the government to foot the bill for the education of students living in Yellowstone National Park.

At their May 3 meeting, commissioners set aside time on their agenda to express regret that they helped clear the way for the State of Wyoming to pay for Yellowstone children’s education.

“I wish I had a do-over,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.

The state of Wyoming pays for the education of the children living in Yellowstone National Park's Mammoth Hot Springs. File photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Acting as the Park County District Boundary Board, commissioners, the county treasurer and the county assessor grudgingly agreed to add the northern half of Yellowstone to the Powell school district in 2014; Commissioner Lee Livingston voted no.

The decision allowed the state to start paying the roughly $450,000 that it costs for the few dozen children in Mammoth Hot Springs to be educated in Gardiner, Montana, each year.

The county board’s vote to expand the Powell district’s boundary into Yellowstone came at the repeated urging of other local and state officials; they included the Powell school board, Gov. Matt Mead and then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. Those officials all said that’s what the law required — noting Wyoming’s constitutional obligation to educate children in the state.

Funding comes from the state; school officials in Powell and Gardiner officials have said the new arrangement is working smoothly.

Last week’s discussion gave commissioners a chance to publicly rehash their belief that the federal government should be paying for the schooling, but it did little else.

“Once you created that, or allowed it to happen, it’s done,” Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric told the commission last week.

Reversing course and shrinking the boundary to exclude Yellowstone would require agreement from the Powell and Cody school districts — “and you’d have to argue it’s in the interest of educating children rather than over a fight for money,” Skoric said.

The National Park Service had paid for the Mammoth students’ education for decades, but Yellowstone officials announced in early 2014 that the payments would have to stop. Park officials had discovered that — because Park County receives federal funding known as “Payment in Lieu of (Property) Taxes” — they were legally barred from paying for any Yellowstone students’ educations.

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden
Commission Chairman Tim French said a recent warning that the county’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes might be cut by 40 percent prompted last week’s discussion. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association has advised Park County to expect those payments and federal Secure Rural Schools funding to drop from a combined $2.73 million this fiscal year to $1.55 million next year.

“I don’t think the federal government is keeping their word on this,” Tilden said of the potential drop.

Skoric suggested going to state legislators and telling them that, “things have changed — the feds have changed their tune, so we should change our tune.”

However, things have not actually changed yet.

The commissioners association’s warning about reduced federal payments is not new — and it may be wrong. The association has encouraged commissions to plan on a 40 percent cut for years and, for years, Congress has provided more Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural School funding than the association’s projections. For example, Park County expected to receive a combined total of $1.13 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year and actually got $2.23 million.

In addition, the issue for the federal government has never been about how much money Park County is receiving; Yellowstone officials have said the issue is that, under federal law, they can’t pay for the children’s education as long as the county is receiving any Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

All of the funding is dependent on Congress.

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