Forced cuts threaten to 'rip apart' Native American schools

Story highlights

  • Forced federal budget cuts will take as much as $60 million out of tribal schools
  • Many school districts on reservations can stretch hundreds of miles
  • The traditional tax base on many reservations is low
  • This requires federal government to step in to make up the difference

On most days, Ray Arsenault feels light years away from Washington as he works as superintendent of a vast school district high in the quiet mountains of northeast New Mexico.

Leading the Gallup-McKinley School District, a region that is nearly 85 percent Navajo Indian, Arsenault said much of his time is spent maintaining his 35 schools and working with Navajo leaders to tailor his school's programming to his students.

When it became apparent in February, however, that across-the-board federal budget cuts would slice government funding for his school, Arsenault was very much plugged in to the ongoing budget discussions.

Arsenault had said his school district would be forced to slash at least $2 million if the mandatory federal budget cuts, known as sequestration in Washington, went into effect. They did so March 1.

The Gallup-McKinley district is not entirely unique.

Because of a combination of a small local tax base, great distances between schools serving Indian tribes and the way federal funding works, many schools that service large populations of Native American students are deeply impacted by federal budget cuts.

Nationwide, according to the National Indian Education Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the education of Native American students, more than $60 million cuts to key programs will affect the operation of 710 schools that serve primarily Native American students.

In total, the group says, 115,000 Native students will be impacted.

"For our Native students in federally impacted schools, the effects of sequestration are devastating because these are real dollar cuts in real time from district and school budgets," NIEA President Dr. Heather Shotton said. "Since these districts are often serving our children on reservation as well as federal property that the districts cannot tax, these districts cannot simply find other sources of funding to make up for lost dollars."

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For a rural district like Gallup-McKinley, the impact is stark.

"We aren't going to be able to educate them in the way we would like to because we don't have the funds to do it," Arsenault told CNN.

100 miles between schools
Sitting on the southern border of the Navajo Nation, a sprawling area of rural land that straddles Arizona and New Mexico, Gallup-McKinley primarily serves Native American students.

CNN Explains: Sequestration

"We have approximately 12,000 students and about 9,000 Native American students in the district," Arsenault said. "Because of those high numbers, percentage wise we are impacted much more."

Many of Arsenault's students live in areas where the federal government cannot assess property taxes. Unlike other schools, where property taxes are used to run and maintain the facilities, Gallup-McKinley doesn't have that luxury.

Impact Aid, the Department of Education program that provides funds to offset money that would have come from property taxes, has been used to partially fund the school district.

For Gallup-McKinley, Impact Aid makes up around 35% of the district's budget.

Unlike other types of federal education grants, Impact Aid is subject to cuts that will take effect at the end of June.

"The bottom line," Arsenault said "is why should the poorest people in the United States have to pay" for Washington's gridlock.

Questions about forced budget cuts, answered

For rural counties, like Gallup-McKinley, the problem is particularly complex.

Distance between schools -- in Arsenault's case, his furthest school is 103 miles away -- means that consolidating programs is not possible.

In most rural school districts, students bus vast distances already.

"I bus three million miles a year to get the students to and from school," Arsenault said about his own district.

With just as many schools running but less money to operate them, cuts are being made to programs like library and vocational training.

"If it were a larger system, you can absorb some of the cuts," Arsenault said. "We can't consolidate programs because of the great distances involved."

In Arsenault's case, because New Mexico law does not mandate librarians at all school sites, the Gallup-McKinley school will likely slash library budgets in the coming year.

Cutting counselors, trainers in Missouri
On the shore of the Missouri River, Sitting Bull College is also feeling the pain of forced budget cuts.

When the sequester looked like a reality in February, the college drew up a budget that would cut nearly 10% of all operating funds from the school.

Since that time, positions at the school -- like academic counselors and vocational trainers -- have been left vacant as the school is unable to fill them because of the possible cuts.

Chart: Measuring the impact of spending cuts

"We can't afford to have all that staff if we don't have that money," Jerl Thompson, outreach coordinator for the school told CNN.

Sitting Bull's three campuses, one in North Dakota and two in South Dakota, serve around 320 students a year, most of who are from the local Sioux tribe.

The college faces a cut of nearly $1 million under sequester, according to the NIEA.

Thompson said those cuts would force the school to freeze salaries and possibly close for summer recess, which means ending college programs for local middle school and high school students.

Earlier this year, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium told Sitting Bull and other Native American universities to plan for at least a 6% cut in funds.

For Mark Trahant, a journalist who has written extensively about the impact forced spending cuts will have on Native Americans, the picture is bleak.

"Tribal colleges are important for many reasons beyond education," Trahant wrote in a January post on his TrahantReports blog. "They are often community economic and idea generators. Because of that, these federal budget cuts will not just hit the schools, but the community."

His point: "The sequester is going to rip apart higher education in Indian Country."

So far, forced spending cuts not as bad as advertised