Budget cuts hit Native American schools hardest

Federal aid for reservations to be cut back

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 already are 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,” Power said, “but you can’t continue to keep it up with no funding.”

Schools located on both Native American 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 by more than three to one. While federal funding generally accounts for about 10 percent of most school districts’ budgets, in schools such as Blackwater, it can account for one-third or more.

When Power’s annual check arrived last November, it totaled only about 70 percent of what she was expecting. Anticipating the mandatory cuts originally due to hit in 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 Power expects class sizes to rise. She already has 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 already have 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,” she 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 emails 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 percent eventually could rise to 80 percent when final numbers are in.

“We have to think that the glass is still half full,” she said.

Jackson-Dennison said she’s not sure where her laid-off teachers, 80 percent of whom are Navajo, will find work. Albuquerque is a three-hour drive, and that district is feeling the sequestration’s effects, too.

“They’ve been here for centuries – 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.”

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