News Column

Cuts Disproportionately Hit Native American Schools

March 22, 2013
Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. (Photo: William Nakai, Creative Commons)
Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. (Photo: William Nakai, Creative Commons)

The mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts from the federal sequestration are causing little noticeable effect on most school campuses, but schools for Native Americans are already feeling the pinch.

Jacquelyn Power and her students have been living with less since last November. Power is both superintendent and principal of the tiny Blackwater Community School on Arizona's Gila River Indian Reservation, one of about 1,300 school districts nationwide that receives federal Impact Aid for schools that can't collect local property taxes. So they're preparing for a hard school year, perhaps one of the hardest since the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs built Blackwater in 1939.

"We have this amazing little school that is beating the odds," she said, "but you can't continue to keep it up with no funding."

Schools both on federal Indian land and military bases receive Impact Aid, but children on Indian lands account for nearly half of Impact Aid dollars, even though they're outnumbered by military kids. While federal funding generally accounts for about 10% of most districts' budgets, in schools such as Blackwater, it can account for one-third or more of the budget.

When Powers' annual check arrived last November, it totaled only about 70% of what she was expecting. Anticipating the mandatory cuts originally due to hit this past January, federal bookkeepers cut her a check with a $62,000 hole in the middle. "That's a huge amount of money in our budget," she said. Add to that the first round of anticipated federal cuts for both poor and disabled children and she expects class sizes to rise. She has already spent most of her emergency fund.

A few hours east, Window Rock, Ariz., Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison confirmed, "We're already under the sequester, right now." As she spoke Thursday, principals were gathered in a conference room down the hall from her Fort Defiance, Ariz., office, trying to figure out how to select teachers for pink slips. Thirty-five teachers have already said they'll leave the district this spring, but Jackson-Dennison needs to trim another 17. She began the school year with 179 teachers and can afford only 127 next fall. "The word has been out about this," Jackson-Dennison said. "People are leaving on their own."

She plans to close or consolidate three of her seven schools.

John Forkenbrock, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said he's getting phone calls and e-mails from superintendents looking for help putting together their 2013-14 budgets, but uncertainty about how the sequestration will play out means he can't really help them. Districts could get a little relief as the federal budget process plays out. Power's 70% could eventually rise to 80% when final numbers are in.

Jackson-Dennison said she's not sure where her laid-off teachers, 80% of whom are Navajo, will find work. Albuquerque is a three-hour drive and that district is feeling the sequestration's effects, too. "They're from here and many generations have been here," she said. The school district is "the only solid structure that they can rely on."



Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013


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