School districts near Yellowstone Park had been getting payments from the Department of the Interior. They shouldn't have been, and now the government wants its money back.
I'm student teaching right now in a small school in Montana. And by small, I mean my largest class has ten students in it. I just taught the Odyssey to four freshman. This place is small.
I enjoy small schools. Everyone can be involved in everything. As I told my friends, "I'd love to live in a small town. District basketball is going on now. Between the team, pep band, cheering section, managers, and teacher chaperones, I think there were about three high schoolers left yesterday. The kids are all extremely involved in the school and take a lot of pride in what they do.
Which is why it troubles me what is happening to a school in our conference. Two of them actually. West Yellowstone and Gardiner schools may be on the hook for millions of dollars. The schools had been receiving around $500,000 per year to help service students that live in Yellowstone National Park. However, the law changed in the 1970's and the payments were supposed to stop. They didn't.
That is until the Department of the Interior discovered the mistake (40 years to late) and stopped paying the schools. And then said they wanted the money back. That could add up to 10 million dollars. Where a small, rural district is going to come up with 10 million dollars is beyond me, and it borders on ludicrous that the DOI would ask for the money back.
The other part of this is, whether or not the school has to pay back of any of the money, Gardiner and West Yellowstone are already facing a $500,000 hole. Gardiner's superintendent JT Stroder says cuts are coming.
He is worried about right now, saying they have already had to cut back on extra curricular activities.
"All field trips are cancelled," said Stroder.
When it comes to cutting extra curricular activities he says everything is on the table, that could mean the possibility of no track and field this season. For sports teams like basketball they are already feeling the financial pinch. As they head to districts at the end of the week in Butte, the district was only able to provide limited necessities like the bus and fuel to get them there. In years past they were able to stay in Butte during the district tournament.
It's about 160 miles from Gardiner to Butte. The team was able to raise money to stay in a hotel, which is good because no kid should be on a bus for 6 hours a day, possibly 4 days in a row. But, who knows for future years.
I don't view these as just cuts to extra-curricular activities. Cuts of this magnitude will impact the educational experience of the students at these schools. If track is cut, what are the chances for art and music? (I say this because, as high school sports go, track is on the cheap end of the scale). For that matter, if you eliminate sports, you're diminishing the educational value of the school. These extra curricular activities help the students engage in their community, studies show that these activities, from music to drama to sports, help with learning.
I also know that schools like Gardiner and West Yellowstone aren't the only ones facing cuts. It happens everywhere. Schools of all sizes are determining what stays and what goes for the next year. But I also know that in small schools, there isn't a lot of wiggle room between cutting back a program and eliminating it.
To me, this represents an enormous mistake by the federal government. These schools are going to be paying for a clerical mistake made 40 years ago. I urge all Montana Kossacs (and anyone with an interest in education) to contact our Congressional Delegation and ask them to help out these small schools. Senator Tester was a music teacher and school board member in Big Sandy, so he knows what challenges these schools face. For our other two congressmen, who will be facing off in November for the Senate, perhaps this could be a chance for them to show if they care about the rural schools that make up our state.