Gardiner School District losing significant federal funds
MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, WYO. — The Gardiner School District is going to have about $500,000 less than anticipated for its 2013-14 school year due to a little-known section of law discovered during the federal budget freeze last year, Yellowstone’s Assistant Superintendent Steve Iobst said in a public meeting held at Mammoth Hot Springs Wednesday afternoon.
The snafu was discovered by park managers last year during the federal budget sequestration. Managers were tasked with finding $1.75 million to cut from Yellowstone’s budget of $34 million. Upon a closer reading of the 1976 law that created the “Payments in Lieu of Taxes,” or PILT, managers discovered the law superseded a 1948 law that had allowed Yellowstone to make direct payments to the school district.
“The two laws were like two ships passing in the night,” park spokesman Al Nash said at the meeting.
Department of Interior officials “embargoed” local park managers from making the information available sooner, Iobst said, and could not otherwise account for the year-long delay.
PILT funds, distributed to local governments through the Department of the Interior, are paid to help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries, according to the DOI website. PILT funds are distributed to local county governments.
The park contributes to both the Gardiner and West Yellowstone school districts to offset the expense of the Montana-based districts educating the children of park employees who are legal residents of Wyoming.
The park has made direct payments to the Gardiner School District from fees collected for recreation, such as gate receipts and campground fees, Zach Allely, the park’s comptroller, said at the meeting. The amount varies by year due to a formula based on the number of children attending the school, Allely said.
This year, 37 children from Mammoth attend school in Gardiner, Iobst said. Last year, the park contributed nearly $500,000, for an average of about $13,000 per student.
Attorneys for the Department of the Interior advised park officials approximately a year ago it would be a violation of the law to continue to disperse funds under the 1948 law, Allely said.
No payments have been made this year, nor does the park expect any will be made.
Gardiner School Superintendent JT Stroder said in an email Thursday the school has a “soft spending freeze in place” while the situation is resolved. The school board discussed the situation at a Wednesday night school board meeting.
A document on the school’s website, called “Understanding Gardiner’s School Budget” indicates about 30 percent of the district’s $3.5 million in revenue comes from federal sources. The document also indicates the school district maintains a budget surplus, or reserves.
Allely outlined a plan for what he called “moving forward.” He told meeting attendees — about 40, who appeared to be Mammoth-area employees of the NPS or Xanterra Parks & Resorts — a first step could be to petition Park County, Wyo., to form a commission to either create a new Mammoth-area school district or explore annexing it to a district in Park County, Wyo.
A new district would have the authority to make a “cross-border agreement” with Gardiner, Allely said.
Allely provided a petition form to present to Wyoming officials, ready for signing. Many meeting attendees lined up to sign after the meeting’s conclusion, and several volunteered to take additional copies of the petition to their neighbors and co-workers. Only those who have Wyoming residency are eligible to sign the petition.
Liz Kearney may be reached at email@example.com.