Yellowstone National Park officials joined a large audience of community members and educators Tuesday evening to explain the current status of PILT repayment during a regular school board meeting. Park superintendent Dan Wenk, deputy superintendent Steve Iobst and acting chief of administration Zack Allely were in attendance at the meeting, with Wenk explaining the bulk of the situation to trustees.
Wenk gave background information into how this all began last fall when the sequestration hit Yellowstone hard with budget cuts and a 16-day shutdown.
“We looked at the revenue string and expenditures to make sure we were compliant,” Wenk said.
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 who live in Yellowstone National Park.
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. Even though the districts were no longer allowed payments, the money continued to be sent on an annual basis until 2011. The district didn’t receive payments since then due to the fact an invoice had never been sent, and payments cannot go out unless there is an invoice received, Allely said.
Allely found the payment issue fairly quickly, and on Jan. 7, determined the NPS was not authorized to make payments, because payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, money had been paid to those counties since 1977.
“It negated the 1948 law when the 1977 law went into effect,” Wenk said.
The park superintendent told trustees that the West Yellowstone School District owes $863,000, which is a far cry from what Gardiner Schools owes, roughly $8 million. He went on to add that the Park Service doesn’t have the intention of making the districts repay the money, but federal law requires them to get the money back if possible.
“We hope it gets resolved if you do get a bill,” Wenk said. “The only way it can be resolved is with a bill.”
On March 7, a news release stated that Rep. Jon Tester, Rep. Steve Daines and Rep. John Walsh recently called on the Interior Department secretary Sally Jewell to speak directly with district leaders to find a better solution for the schools and students. Tester, Walsh and Daines introduced the Yellowstone Community Education Fairness Act, which would keep the government from trying to collect the overpayments.
“Asking these school districts to return funds that were awarded over 30 years ago is simply unfair,” Tester said in the press release. “These rural school districts do not have the resources to return that money. And they shouldn’t have to.”
If it turns out the district will receive a bill, the only solution would come from legislation, Wenk said. He went on to add that the Park Service wants this resolved just as quickly as the school district, and ideally, legislation will fix the issue.
“We want it resolved in a fair, honest manner,” he said. “We value our relationships with the gateway communities and the children within the park,” he said. “We don’t want this to be a problem between the gateway communities and the park.”
If legislation does not come to pass and fix the repayment requirement, superintendent Lael Calton says the district still has options to be forgiven of the debt.
“We can write a letter to the Department of Justice and ask for debt forgiveness,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, we have an attorney.”
Calton went on to add that she isn’t overly concerned with the issue, but that she wishes it had never happened.
“I wish it would go away,” she said.
Board chair Maggie Anderson stated that repayment would set the district back quite a bit if it came to be; however, the bigger issue is the absence of $18,000-$20,000 a year the district is used to receiving.
“The bigger impact is the funds that we no longer get,” she said.
The board thanked the Yellowstone administrators for attending the meeting and further explaining the situation.
In other new business, trustees tabled K-6 principal and activities director Kevin Flanagan’s contract after unanimously agreeing that Flanagan’s requested 10-percent wage increase was too much.
Flanagan stated in a letter that he looked at salaries and benefits from principals around the region, and when considering what he would be making based on the teachers’ matrix and West Yellowstone’s high cost of living, he believed the salary increase was reasonable.Flanagan included salaries of surrounding schools in the district, of which most were considerably higher than his yearly salary request of $55,000.
“It’s a very large pay increase and the comparison to the matrix is unfair; you gave up the matrix when you left your teaching job and became an administrator,” trustee John Gospodarek said.
Gospodarek also denounced Flanagan’s reasoning for higher cost of living for the pay increase, stating that reason has not been successful in negotiating contracts in the past, and it would be unfair to start now.
“Any wage increase starts at the beginning of the fiscal year and (Flanagan’s) first check with any increase would begin in September,” Calton said. “He’s putting in 207 (work) days, and working 12-15 full Saturdays (as the activities director); he’s working more than 207 days.”
Trustee Kelly Burden said Flanagan has been doing a good job in his new position, but didn’t see the logic in a 10- percent increase, as Flanagan still has training to complete this summer and hasn’t worked a full year in the new position.
“All in all, I looked at everything and my feeling is that I’m willing to do a five percent increase for $52,500,” Kelly said. “That way you’ll be making a little more than you would be as a teacher.”
Trustee Rachael Burden agreed, stating she would like to pay Flanagan as much as other districts are paying their principals, but said the 10-percent raise was too much.
“As a district, we don’t have the money to throw around,” Rachael said. “I don’t think it’s a precedent we want to set.”
Trustees agreed to table the item, which will be addressed at a special board meeting on Wednesday, March 19, at noon in the school library.
In other new business, a letter of support for the West Yellowstone Community Aquatic center was signed and approved by trustees. Trustees also approved a grading scale revision for the 2014-15 school year.
Teacher Jo Stevens was also unanimously approved to be hired as the junior high track coach for the upcoming track season.
District clerk Bunnie Weickum announced that all petitions for school board positions are due by noon on March 27. Those who wish to withdraw their petition must do so by 4 p.m. on March 28. The two positions up for election are Archer and Anderson’s three-year positions.
Food Roundup, Marc Sheppard, Kevin Conlon, Nubia Allen, Todd Atchley, Sarah Hanson, Vickie Barta, Business Professionals of America and the Science Bowl Team were all recognized before wrapping up the meeting.
The next regular school board meeting will be held Tuesday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. in the school’s art room. A special meeting regarding Flanagan’s contract will be held Wednesday, March 19, at noon in the school’s library.