STATEMENT OF DAVID MIHALIC, SUPERINTENDENT, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, RECREATION, AND PUBLIC LANDS, OF THE HOUSE RESOURCES COMMITTEE, CONCERNING H. R. 3421, TO PROVIDE ADEQUATE SCHOOL FACILITIES WITHIN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.

 

DECEMBER 13, 2001


Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H. R. 3421.  This bill would authorize the

Secretary of the Interior to provide supplemental funding and other services and facilities that are necessary to assist the State of California or

local school districts in providing educational services and facilities for students attending schools located within Yosemite National Park.

 

While the Department believes that students who attend schools in Yosemite National Park should have access to the same educational services and facilities found elsewhere in the State of California, we are concerned over the source of funds identified to accomplish the purposes of the bill, as well as other provisions in the bill. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the committee to identify an appropriate source of funds, and to clarify certain provisions, but cannot support the bill in its current form. The Administration is generally concerned about the notion of diverting limited park funds to what is essentially a State responsibility. We do not want this to set a precedent that parks should take over responsibility for schools or create an NPS school system.

 

Schools have been located within Yosemite National Park for over 125 years to serve the needs of park employees and their children.  At present, two elementary schools are located within the park at Wawona and in Yosemite Valley. A third elementary school and a small high school are located in El Portal, the park’s administrative site located on federal property just outside the park boundary. Most students attend the larger county high school in Mariposa because of the lack of opportunity for a comprehensive program at the El Portal school.

 

The Yosemite Valley School has about 46 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade, divided into three classes.  The amount of funding from the State of California, according to a formula based on average daily attendance, actually supports only two teachers, but a third is funded by a one-time special grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

 

The elementary school in El Portal has 50 students in seven grades, divided into multi-graded classrooms.  The Wawona school is like the old “one-room” schoolhouse, with 20 children in grades K-8, and one teacher.  Because the current funding formula provides for only one teacher, and the maximum teacher/student ratio has been reached, the school is unable to serve more than 20 students. Consequently, there have been instances in which parents were left with the choice of either home-schooling their children or transporting them on their own to schools elsewhere. Some parents have elected these options voluntarily because of the conditions at the Wawona school.

 

Because the schools in the park are located long distances from the administrative offices of their school districts, there has been limited access to services that are normally available to students that attend schools elsewhere. For example, access to teachers to serve students with special needs is very limited, and road and weather conditions can often further restrict teachers’ abilities to reach the park. Subjects such as band, art, music, choir, or even physical education are provided only if parents are able to find additional funding to hire an aide.  Many facilities are in need of repair or do not meet standards.

 

While teachers at the Yosemite schools are as committed as teachers anywhere else, the quality of education that students receive in these schools suffers as a result of lack of funding and staffing. For example, teachers who teach only one grade level can focus on curriculum and standards for that grade, while teachers in the Yosemite schools must spread their time and energy across multiple grade levels. In addition to their educational duties, they must also tend to administrative duties normally performed by other employees. As a result, despite their best efforts, teachers at the Yosemite schools are unable to give the time or attention necessary to provide the quality of education that the students deserve.

 

Recruitment and retention of employees at Yosemite National Park is also adversely affected by the quality of the park schools. Many highly qualified NPS employees with school age children who might otherwise be interested in applying for jobs at Yosemite are discouraged from doing so because of the school situation. Recently, a highly qualified individual declined to accept an offer for a division chief position at the park after realizing that the schools could not meet the special needs of his child. Park employees often cite the schools as a major factor in their decision to transfer from Yosemite to other assignments.

 

The Department has a number of specific concerns regarding this bill. First, the legislation provides for an inappropriate use of recreation fee receipts, particularly since it has no connection to the benefits provided to the visitors who are paying the fee. In addition, we believe that any funds made available to the park for flood recovery should not be available for purposes of this legislation, nor should the bill authorize the use of federal funds for facility construction. We suggest that the bill be amended to provide only for general upkeep and maintenance of school facilities, not new construction.

 

Second, the bill allows the Secretary to adjust payments if funding from the State of California or the local school districts is reduced. In order to clarify that payments made by the Secretary are intended to supplement, not replace, the funding provided by the State or local school districts, we would suggest that this section be amended, and would be happy to work with the committee to develop the appropriate language.

 

Finally, the bill authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to enter into cooperative agreements with the State of California or local school districts for the operation, expansion, or construction of schools located within or near the park at federal expense. We believe that this authority should be limited to circumstances in which the Secretary concurs in the opinion that educational facilities and services cannot reasonably be provided by the State of California or the local school districts that serve the park. Absent this limitation, the legislation would, in effect, provide an incentive for the local school districts to cease operating the Yosemite schools, even if they could reasonably continue to staff and fund them.

 

While we strongly believe that the responsibility for providing educational services rests with the State of California, we realize that the quality of education received by the children of park employees and others who attend the Yosemite schools is dependent on the resources of the local school districts. We believe that this legislation is a good start at providing the means to improve the schools in Yosemite National Park, and look forward to working with the committee on identifying an appropriate funding source and clarifying the role of the Secretary in assisting the State of California and the local school districts with providing educational services and facilities at the park.

 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks.  I would be happy to respond to any questions that you or any members of the subcommittee may have.