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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published November 28 2013

Heitkamp pushes plan to establish commission on Indian children

CANNON BALL, N.D. – Ceiling tiles, stained and sagging from years of roof leaks, hang over the heads of elementary school students here on the Standing Rock Reservation in south-central North Dakota.

Cannon Ball Elementary, originally built in the 1930s, has been expanded and repaired so many times, it now survives as a patchwork of outdated and cracking structures with temperatures that fluctuate from room to room and musty smells blamed by at least one teacher for students’ sinus problems.

Mold is “always a concern,” said Justin Fryer, the first-year superintendent of Solen School District, which includes Cannon Ball.

Fryer would like to replace the school, to give its 117 students in kindergarten through sixth grade a more learning-friendly environment.

But much of the district’s land is held in trust for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and therefore not subject to property taxes that other districts often use to finance new schools. State aid must be used for instruction, and federal Impact Aid took a big hit with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, threatening the district’s after-school program leaders see as crucial to combating historically low attendance rates.

It all can make administrators like Fryer feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. While he’s excited about what the school district is doing instructionally, including being the only district in the state to take advantage of a federal grant program for low-performing schools, “This building feels like it holds us back,” he told U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp this week as she visited the school.

Heitkamp toured Cannon Ball Elementary and Solen High School on Tuesday, visiting with school officials and interacting with students, and also met with members of the Standing Rock Tribal Council in Fort Yates, to document the challenges facing the reservation so she can share them with her colleagues in Congress.

Her visit offered a small window into what the first-term Democrat hopes to accomplish with her first piece of legislation since taking office in January, a bill introduced Oct. 30 to create a Commission on Native Children. It’s a plan that’s some tribal members can’t help but meet with a dose of skepticism.

The 11-member commission would conduct a three-year comprehensive study of the issues facing children in Indian Country and the resources and programs available to help them. The panel would then issue a report to Congress recommending ways to improve the current system by building on strengths in native communities.

“Our great hope is that this will push the issue of treaty rights and treaty obligations front and center,” said Heitkamp, a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Tribal leaders view education as a key part of the solution, but school districts on Indian land face unique challenges.

Fryer said 35 percent to 40 percent of the district’s funding is federal, compared to 5 percent to 10 percent in most North Dakota public school districts, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, who joined Heitkamp for the schools tour.

Most education programs have funding appropriated in advance for the upcoming school year. But the federal Impact Aid relied upon heavily by schools that enroll children from tax-exempt Indian lands is current-year funded. That means cuts to Impact Aid – such as the $67 million reduction triggered this year through sequestration – are felt immediately.

“How do I budget and offer programs and offer quality staff for the kids with money I don’t know I’m going to get?” Fryer said.

Heitkamp said the nation needs a plan that provides more certainty for funding Indian education.

“I’d like to believe the commission I’m proposing … is going to encompass all of these issues,” she said.

After seeing the school’s disrepair and cramped classrooms – some located up a flight of stairs and not handicapped-accessible – Heitkamp agreed Cannon Ball needs a new school, telling Solen School Board President Louis DeCouteau: “It’s time to stop patching and start building.”

But tribal members have heard that before, said Patty Kelly, a 77-year-old Cannon Ball resident whose parents lost thousands of acres when the U.S. government flooded the Missouri River valley to create the Lake Oahe reservoir.

During Heitkamp’s discussion with school and tribal officials at the elementary school, Kelly pulled out an agenda for a similar visit by U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont on Oct. 15, 1995. One of the reservation schools Jeffords toured, in Wakpala, S.D., has since been replaced. Kelly, noting that North Dakota’s government is sitting flush with revenue, said Cannon Ball should be next.

“Maybe it’ll be another 18 years. I hope not. I hope it’ll be eight months,” she said.

Jay Taken Alive, a longtime Tribal Council member, raised doubts about whether Heitkamp’s bill will fly. He said he didn’t mean to be pessimistic, “But our people are going to say, ‘Wow, another study.’ “

Even if the bill passes and the commission submits a list of recommendations, Taken Alive said he wonders if Congress will dedicate the necessary resources to do anything about it.

Just minutes after another council member lamented that the tribe’s suicide prevention program — funded partially with federal dollars — is set to run out of money in August, Taken Alive reported that he’d just arrived from a reservation school where yet another student had committed suicide.

“We need to get resources,” he said. “We have the know-how.”

As of Friday, the bipartisan bill introduced by Heitkamp and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, had attracted 10 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana. Leaders of all five of North Dakota’s American Indian tribes also have endorsed the bill, which now awaits a hearing to be scheduled.

Heitkamp, riding shotgun in a Ford Explorer on the way back home to Mandan, acknowledged the bill is a bit of a political risk. She said it’s likely no one would have criticized her had she done nothing and allowed the government’s piecemeal approach to Native Americans issues to continue.

“So, I’m willing to risk failure, because the consequences of not trying are too high,” she said.