STATEMENT OF RICHARD RING, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FOR ADMINISTRATION, BUSINESS PRACTICES, AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES, CONCERNING H.R. 620, A BILL TO AUTHORIZE ASSISTANCE FOR EDUCATIONAL SERVICES FOR STUDENTS ATTENDING SCHOOLS WITHIN YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

SEPTEMBER 9, 2003



Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 620, which would authorize assistance to the State of California or local educational agencies for educational services for students attending schools in Yosemite National Park and would authorize park facilities to be established outside the boundary of the park. This legislation was passed by the House on March 25, 2003.

The Department supports H.R. 620, as we believe that students who attend schools in Yosemite National Park should have access to educational services that are comparable to those that students elsewhere in California receive. The funding authorized by this bill would be a strictly limited provision of assistance to address a particularly severe situation for schools located in a national park. The Department also supports authorizing expenditures for facilities outside Yosemite, as this would enable the National Park Service to contribute to the regional transportation system being developed to serve Yosemite's visitors and employees.

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 high-school age 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 42 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, supports only two teachers. The school principal also serves as a teacher.

The elementary school in El Portal has 53 students in seven grades, divided into multi-graded classrooms. The Wawona school mirrors the old "one-room" schoolhouse, with 16 children in grades K-8, and one teacher. Because the current funding formula provides for only one teacher, the school is unable to serve more than 20 students. Consequently, in years when the maximum teacher-student ratio is reached, parents are left with the choice of either home-schooling their children or transporting them on their own to schools elsewhere.

Because the schools in the park are located in remote areas, students at the Yosemite schools lack services that are normally available to students that attend schools elsewhere in the state. For example, access to teachers to serve students with special needs is very limited, and road and weather conditions can often restrict teachers' abilities to reach the park. Many facilities are in need of repair or do not meet state or federal standards.

The quality of education that students receive in these schools suffers as a result of lack of funding and staffing. For example, because teachers in the Yosemite schools are responsible for multiple grade levels, they are at a disadvantage compared to teachers who are able to focus on the curriculum and standards for one grade. In addition to their educational duties, teachers must also tend to administrative duties normally performed by other employees. As a result, they 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 National Park Service 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. Park employees often cite the schools as a major factor in their decision to transfer from Yosemite to other assignments.

H.R. 620 authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to provide funds to the two school districts that administer schools at Yosemite for educational services to students who are dependents of park employees or who live on federal property in or near the park. The bill prohibits funds from being used for facility construction or major improvements, and limits the amount of funding that may be provided to the lesser of $400,000 annually or the amount necessary to provide students with educational services comparable to those received by other public school students in California. The bill allows funding for this purpose to be derived from appropriations, donations and fees, except that it prohibits the use of fees collected under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, from the Recreational Fee Demonstration program, and from the National Park Passport program. The legislation also prohibits the use of emergency appropriations for Yosemite flood recovery for this purpose.

We want to note that the proposal to assist Yosemite schools has been refined considerably since it was first introduced last Congress. The initial proposal was an indefinite authorization of funding with no limit on the dollar amount that could be spent or restriction on the use of the funds. During the last Congress, the Department worked closely with this committee, the House Resources Committee, and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to set limits on the amount, duration, use, and source of the funding authorized by this legislation. The result is that the proposal in its current form is now a tightly drawn authorization of a limited amount of federal assistance for what is a unique educational situation.

We strongly believe that any assistance for schools authorized by this bill should be supplemental to Yosemite's annual budget and should not result in a reduction of the amount of funding available for park operations and maintenance.

H.R. 620 also authorizes the Secretary to provide assistance for transportation systems and facilities outside the boundary of Yosemite National Park. It does so by extending to Yosemite the same authority Congress provided Zion National Park in 1996 to enter into agreements and expend funds outside the boundaries of the park. This bill explicitly allows appropriations to be used for "transportation systems" along with other administrative and visitor use facilities.

This provision would allow the park to contribute financially to the regional transportation system that serves the park's visitors and employees. Developing this system has been a goal of the park since the adoption of the 1980 General Management Plan.

In 1999 Mariposa, Merced, and Mono counties created a Joint Powers Authority as an entity to implement the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) and entered into a Cooperative Agreement with Yosemite National Park. Now in its fourth successful year, YARTS provides an attractive alternative for visitors and employees without having to replace the use of private cars. In 2001, YARTS carried over 38,000 passengers, including park employees, during Yosemite's prime visitor season (May through September). Many of these visitors chose to leave their cars at their motels or other locations outside the park. By choosing YARTS to access the Yosemite Valley, over 11,000 parking places were made available during the summer.

During the initial two years, the National Park Service participated in the funding of this project using fee demonstration program authority. In its third year of operations, that funding was no longer available, and YARTS had to reduce the number of runs it provides. The regional transportation system is an important means to solve Yosemite's parking and congestion issues by reducing the amount of infrastructure development within the park, and thus substantially reducing the funding requirements for implementing the Yosemite Valley Plan. The Department believes that a small amount of federal assistance will help make YARTS an even bigger success.

In addition, the authority provided by H.R. 620 would enable the National Park Service to establish visitor contact facilities in the park's gateway communities, as is called for in the Yosemite Valley Plan.

In order to assure that the park has the ability to contribute to YARTS through all available transportation authorities, we suggest amending H.R. 620 to make the transportation fee authority provided under Title V of the National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-391) applicable to parks that fund transportation services through a cooperative agreement. The existing language allows parks to use that authority only in cases where transportation services are provided through a service contract. The text of this proposed amendment is attached.

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