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WASHINGTON – Schools on Minnesota’s American Indian reservations are already suffering from the across-the-board budget cuts of the federal sequester, taking a hit months before the rest of the country’s classrooms will feel the effects of reduced funding.
The White Earth Reservation could cut the school year short at its federally funded tribal school.
The Red Lake School District, where the high school was the site of a shooting that left seven people dead in 2005, has scaled back its security staff.
And school officials on reservations across the state have already slashed this year’s budgets in anticipation of sequester cuts, packing more students in classrooms, trimming class offerings and letting vacant jobs go unfilled.
“There’s a real sense of frustration for everybody,” Red Lake Superintendent Steve Wymore said.
The cuts come as tribal schools have begun making strides against their historically low graduation rates. For the class of 2012, graduate rates for American Indians rose 3 points — the first sizable increase in years. Typically in Minnesota, 45 percent of American Indian students earn a high school diploma in four years. The statewide graduation rate for all students is 87 percent.
“It is indefensible that the first wave of reckless sequestration cuts to education will hit our most vulnerable students,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus. Sequestration is the name for the across-the-board federal cuts being imposed as the result of Congress’ failure to reach agreements on spending.
If those cuts stretch beyond the fall and more funding for support programs is stripped, recent gains in graduation rates, test scores and school preparedness could be jeopardized, said Brent Gish, executive director of the National Indian Impacted Schools Association, which represents schools on Indian lands.
“If something isn’t done, it’ll be devastating,” said Gish, a former Red Lake schools superintendent. American Indian students are already more likely to start out behind, with greater percentages living in poverty and entering kindergarten more unprepared than other populations.
Can’t tap local dollars
In most school districts, education is funded largely by state and local governments, with the federal government chipping in anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Schools on Indian reservations and military bases are exceptions because they sit on tax-exempt land. Unable to raise funds from tax levies, such schools depend more heavily on federal aid. In addition to funds for poor and disabled children, schools on federal land also receive Impact Aid, intended to make up for the lack of property-tax revenue.
Under sequestration, the U.S. Department of Education would cut 5 percent from all of its education programs. Most of those reductions won’t take effect until autumn, but Impact Aid is scheduled to be cut immediately — as soon as this month, for some districts.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 22 districts — most with fewer than 300 students — and three charter schools in Minnesota are already dealing with nearly $1 million in cuts.
In Red Lake, reductions in class offerings and support staff were made in addition to the security guard cuts, said Superintendent Steve Wymore.
All extracurricular and after-school programs are potentially on the chopping block in Mahnomen Public Schools, said Superintendent Jeff Bisek.
Starting in the fall, Rochelle Johnson, superintendent of the 66-student Pine Pointe School District on the White Earth Reservation, anticipates having to place a moratorium on field trips and consolidating her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students into a single classroom.
While speaking to representatives of reservation and military base schools last week in Washington, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he never expected the cuts to happen.
“Sequestration is a terrible way to deal with our budget,” said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a member of the Senate committees on education and Indian affairs. “This would be a huge disservice to these kids, and I hope we can get this fixed soon.”
Other programs hurt
Sequestration will also hit Head Start and adult education, programs that supplement the state’s K-12 education system.
The White House has estimated that cuts to Head Start, which funds early childhood education for low-income families, will cut off access for 700 children across Minnesota.
State data show that about 40 percent of American Indian students are unprepared for kindergarten. Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said at least 25 Head Start slots could be cut on her reservation, straining a program already subsidized by the tribal government.
The White House has said that adult education grants won’t be affected until July, but Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, expects longer class waiting lists in the fall: The reservation typically has more students graduate from adult education programs each spring than from its traditional high schools, she said. White Earth leaders also are mulling a delayed opening for the fall Head Start program.
Said Vizenor: “It’s devastating.”