Tester, Walsh introduce bill to save Montana school districts millions from past overpayments

Senators’ legislation addresses recent pay issues for Yellowstone schools

(U.S. SENATE) – Since 1977, the federal government has overpaid three Montana school districts millions of dollars, and this week Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh introduced a bill that prevents the government from breaking the schools’ budgets by demanding repayment.

The overpayment issue started when Gardiner School Districts 4 and 7 and Gallatin School District 69 in West Yellowstone began receiving payments from the U.S. Interior Department under two initiatives meant to both compensate communities for tax revenue lost due to their proximity to public lands – such as Yellowstone National Park – and educate Park employees’ children.

A 1976 change in federal law prevents school districts from receiving resources from both initiatives, the Payments-in-Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program and an older program meant to compensate communities in the vicinity of Yellowstone, but the Department’s error was not discovered until recently.

The Interior Department recently halted the payments and will likely be requesting the three districts repay more than three decades worth of payments, which could cost the school districts millions of dollars and force them to make drastic budget cuts.

“Asking these school districts to return funds that were awarded over 30 years ago is simply unfair,” Tester said. “These rural school districts do not have the resources to return that money. And they shouldn’t have to. This legislation will help our schools remain strong and let them focus their resources on providing young Montanans the high-quality educations they deserve.”

“We can’t ask our students to pay for Washington’s accounting mistakes,” said Walsh. “Instead of spending time asking for Montana to foot the bill for bureaucratic error, the Department should focus on improving its oversight and accountability systems to prevent this from happening again.”

“This year has been a very trying time for the students, staff and community of Gardiner in having to deal with a huge financial rug being pulled out from under us in the middle of educating students,” said J.T Stroder, superintendent of Gardiner schools. “We do not know what we would have done without Senators Tester and Walsh working for with us to resolve this matter quickly so we can provide our students with the high-quality educations they deserve. They have been a God-send during this trying time.”

Tester and Walsh, along with Congressman Steve Daines, recently called on Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell to speak directly with district leaders to find a better solution for the schools and students. Their letter is available online HERE.

Tester and Walsh’s bill, the Yellowstone Community Education Fairness Act, which officially keeps the government from trying to collect the overpayments, is available online HERE.