West Yellowstone School District 69 and two other Montana school districts bordering Yellowstone National Park were recently told by the U.S. Department of the Interior that they owe millions of dollars to the federal government due to a mistake dating back to 1976.
Since 1948, schools in West Yellowstone and Gardiner have received annual payments from the Department of the Interior meant to compensate the districts for educating students living outside the school districts in Yellowstone National Park. That money came from Yellowstone visitor fees, park superintendent Al Nash told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle earlier this week, and schools were only allowed that money if they were in counties that did not receive payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, money.
In 1976, Congress authorized PILT payments to counties around Yellowstone, so West Yellowstone and Gardiner schools were technically no longer allowed their annual payments from the park. But Yellowstone officials didn’t get the memo from Washington and continued to pay the school districts as they had been, according to Nash.
The error apparently came to light last fall around the time of the federal government shutdown, when government agencies were pressed to find cost-saving measures, says Lael Calton, superintendent of West Yellowstone School District 69. She questioned why the school districts weren’t notified until this month if the problem was discovered several months ago.
“(The Interior Department) did not want to talk about it, and that is a concern of mine,” Calton said.
Fortunately for West Yellowstone, the issue is much smaller than in Gardiner, where the school district may owe $10 million to the feds. Gardiner was expecting $600,000 this year to educate 37 students who live at park headquarters at Mammoth — money the district won’t get now. Yellowstone doesn’t have the legal authority to pay the district, Nash told Chronicle reporter Gail Schontzler Tuesday.
For West Yellowstone, the Interior Department payments are less significant and don’t affect the school’s budget.
“It’s not as much money for us in West Yellowstone … Usually we get around $30,000 a year, although we haven’t received it since 2011,” Calton explained. “(The payments are) supplementary.”
Of course, if the school is forced to pay back 35 years’ worth of $30,000 payments, the issue could become much bigger. Calton hasn’t been told a total, but she and Gardiner superintendent J.T. Stroder have been pressing federal officials for answers. As of Wednesday morning, Calton said neither administrator had heard anything further from the Department of the Interior.
“We’re all kind of in a quandary right now,” she said. “We’re instructed (by the district attorneys) just to wait to see what kind of communication we get (from the DOI), if any.”
Montana’s U.S. Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh and Congressman Steve Daines sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell requesting a call between the elected representatives, Interior Department officials and administrators from the affected school districts.
“These rural school districts will be hard-pressed to rework their annual budgets without these annual payments, much less pay back the millions of dollars they received,” their letter said. “We feel that more information is needed to fully understand how this happened and what can be done to correct the issue.”
(Editor's note: Look for more on this story in Friday's West Yellowstone News.)