After a short, sometimes heated discussion, the second meeting of the Park County Boundary Board agreed to recommend the inclusion of those parts of Yellowstone Park within Park County into the Powell School District – with some conditions.
The district boundary board consists of the county commissioners, county assessor and county treasurer.
For 37 students of the Mammoth Hot Springs community, this means they’ll continue to go to school in Gardiner, Mont., about five miles away, as they have for many years, with the cost of their education now paid by the state of Wyoming.
The cost of educating the children of YNP employees and concessionaires was paid by the park for many years. Then, earlier this year, park officials discovered those payments were supposed to have ended in 1978 and this had somehow been overlooked.
Though funds were cut off in the middle of the school year, the governor’s office recently announced Gardiner will be reimbursed the nearly $500,000 for educating Mammoth students this year from emergency funds.
The first boundary board meeting May 14 adjourned without reaching a decision after questions were raised about possible conflicts of jurisdiction between the school district and the Department of the Interior.
Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric suggested the solution lay in a process called relinquishment, a formal declaration from Interior giving up legal authority for education in the park.
Deputy state attorney general Michael O’Donnell assured the board that was not going to happen.
At the second meeting last week, O’Donnell informed the board Interior lawyers had given assurances in a memo that the federal government would recognize the authority of the Powell School District for education, in particular concerning cases of truancy.
According to O’Donnell, states have legal authority to prosecute crimes on federal lands within their boundaries and pointed out many students living along Wyoming’s border go to school in neighboring states with costs paid by Wyoming.
Skoric countered that while parents’ failure to send children to school is a criminal offense, a student’s refusal to go to school is a civil matter, called a CHIN case (Child In Need of Supervision).
“We need the federal government to give assurances of authority in writing,” Skoric said.
He also said trouble could come in the future about issues of curriculum differences and ideology.
O’Donnell responded that all possible assurances had been given.
“There is nothing more to explain,” O’Donnell added. “All possible contingencies have been answered. If you don’t expand, you’ll strand 37 students without an education.”
Commissioner Joe Tilden responded heatedly.
“In my opinion the fed walked away from its responsibility,” Tilden said. “I take great offense. It upsets me the federal government can wash their hands of it and say, ‘You guys take care of it and if you don’t you’re the bad guys.’”
Commissioner Loren Grosskopf suggested a compromise and presented a draft letter recommending expansion with two conditions.
The first seeks a written legal determination from the Wyoming Attorney General sent to the board prior to expansion that the Interior Department, though retaining exclusive federal jurisdiction within the park, cannot legally interfere in the future with the school district’s ability to educate students consistent with Wyoming law.
The second condition addressed concerns the federal government might pursue claims for back payments to 1978.
“In addition, prior to approval by the State Board of Education of this expansion, the State of Wyoming indemnify Powell School District for any potential claims for past payments that may be brought against it by the federal government, State of Montana or Gardiner School District.”
O’Donnell said he would push for acceptance of the conditions by the state Attorney General.
The recommendation now goes to the state Board of Education for approval.
(Steve Browne can be reached at email@example.com.)