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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  40 years too late! You teach English? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa
  •  My suggestion is that they first get (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    irate, Ojibwa, BlackSheep1, cjtjc, FarWestGirl

    back that $2 or $3 trillion dollars that the pentagon "lost"

    And then go after stuff like this.

  •  ya know (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rich in PA, Ojibwa, CorinaR, crose

    Where did all this money go? "cause $500,000 a year to a small school is ah big? they should have great tech stuff.. what are the teachers paid.. how about admin?

    Now if you could dig a little deeper..and show  how the "kids" benefitted and no one else? ...cool..

    Don't panic..perhaps it will just be a case where kids in your rural area will be treated like kids in every other State who experience the suffocation of their education opportunity...

    Welcome to 21st century education...ya think yer kids have it tough.. try Detroit..

    ashes..ashes..we all fall down  

  •  Montana is a booming state (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dallasdunlap, Ojibwa, CorinaR

    ...but its state budget is 8th in the nation in federal support.  So while I don't think the Feds should ask for their money back since it was their mistake, the real question is why Montana can't be more self-supporting.

    It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love

    by Rich in PA on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 07:09:30 AM PST

    •  The 2015 MT budget projects a $435M surplus. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      88kathy, Ojibwa, FarWestGirl

      That's a lot of money in a small state.

      It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love

      by Rich in PA on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 07:10:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It doesn't go towards ed (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        FarWestGirl

        Despite the surplus, our legislature (which really doesn't get enough credit for being crazy) made cuts to secondary and higher ed. The latter is despite getting testimony from both the presidents of Montana State and the University of Montana saying that if cuts came, they'd have to raise tuition.

        I totally agree that our state can do more for schools. And they should. But, I'm not putting a lot of faith in our legislature to help out. Maybe the upcoming session will be different, what with our congressional delegation having commented on it (was in the Bozeman paper) but I'm not holding my breath.

  •  How about they can have it when (6+ / 0-)

    Interior pays our Native Americans what they are owed?

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 07:16:34 AM PST

  •  It would be interesting to know (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa

    what federal change, in the 1970s, was responsible for this.  Unfortunately, the Montana news sources don't seem to discuss it.  (The follow-up question would be whether there are schools in other states experiencing the same problem -- and if so, is there a way to coordinate the response, and work with their congress-people?)

    It looks like this may be another case of the typical media response to federal budget cuts -- they seem innocuous in the abstract, so nobody objects; and it's only when you get down to the community level that people notice the problems they cause.

    •  The change is this: (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      texasmom, Ojibwa, FarWestGirl
      In 1948, Nash said, Congress passed a bill allowing Yellowstone National Park to use some of its visitor fees to reimburse local schools for educating park employees' children. Part of the law said payments could continue so long as no “payment-in-lieu-of-taxes” or PILT money was paid to state or local governments.

      In 1976 Congress passed a law authorizing PILT payments to counties near federal lands that don't get property taxes but still have to provide services.

      PILT payments came from Washington. Meanwhile, Nash said, Yellowstone officials kept paying local schools from visitor fees, unaware of the PILT payments.

      When the federal belt-tightening known as the sequester hit a year ago, Nash said, Yellowstone officials scrutinized their budget and discovered the conflict in the law. Park Service lawyers agreed Yellowstone couldn't legally continue to pay the schools.

      That's true even though Gardiner School gets zero PILT dollars, according to Stroder. Federal PILT payments go to counties, which decide how to use the money.

      Basically, it has to do with how the Federal Government pays property taxes to local governments for public lands. Without these payments and without private lands that can be taxed, the local governments are stuck holding the bag for services that they cannot afford to provide.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 08:13:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I don't about the finances of the schools (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa

    But if superintendents are talking about cutting programs, then I'd say this is significant.

  •  State support? (0+ / 0-)

    Can these districts emergency-petition the state for aid to get through this year?  Going forward, can they combine districts and save some $$, on administrative expenses if nowhere else?  I'm sure these are large districts in terms of area if not population, and people will be greatly inconvenienced, but sometimes that happens when you live in that kind of community.  And if the counties are receiving Federal funds, can they pick up the tab for some things (like hotels in Butte so the basketball team can bring some notice to the county).

    "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom." -- G.W.Carver

    by northbronx on Thu Feb 20, 2014 at 12:32:37 PM PST

    •  Co-opping is a tricky subject (0+ / 0-)

      And it's understandably controversial. These two districts probably can't (too far apart...it's 90 minutes if you go through Yellowstone). The nearest schools to these communities are an hour away.

      In some places, where schools are 20 miles from one another, it makes a little more sense. But, the further apart that the communities are, the bigger the inconvenience.

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