Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, left, at the Riverside Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on January 25, 2018. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

Bureau of Indian Affairs teachers accepted illegal payments from tribe

As public school teachers across the nation walk out in protest of inadequate funding, some in Indian Country found a way to cope with their below-average salaries.

According to a summary of an internal investigation made public on Monday, Native language teachers in South Dakota "illegally supplemented" their federal pay by accepting money from a tribe. They took the money even after being "admonished by their supervisors" and being told their actions violated federal law, the Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior said.

"We also determined that at least one teacher solicited for payments at district and tribal council meetings," the summary stated.

According to the Inspector General, the teachers each accepted "two or three" payments during the 2014 and 2015 school years. The payments ranged from nearly $1,500 to more than $5,500 but a total wasn't provided.

The name of the tribe involved wasn't provided either. And none of the teachers were punished, as the U.S. Attorney in South Dakota declined to prosecute, the summary stated.

"One of the teachers left the school shortly after we interviewed her, one teacher is now deceased, and the remaining teachers are still employed at the school," the Inspector General said, without providing the name of the school.

A spokesperson for the BIA declined to comment immediately about the report, or the teachers involved.

South Dakota is home to nearly two dozen Bureau of Indian Education institutions. All are located on reservations, with the exception of the Pierre Indian Learning Center, which is based in Pierre, the state capital.

Though all of the schools in South Dakota are part of the BIE system, almost every single one is considered a "grant" school. That means the school is managed by a tribe, either through a self-determination contract or under the Tribally Controlled Grant Schools Act.

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It also means that tribes largely determine how much their teachers get paid, based on the amounts they receive through their contracts or grants. But the money isn't the greatest.

According to a 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office, teachers salaries at tribally controlled schools "generally were lower than teacher salaries at public schools."

The most recent study at BIE schools, including those operated by tribes, found that the average base salary for teacher was $41,500, the GAO reported.

"By contrast, public schools nationwide paid, on average, an estimated base salary of $49,600, including an average of $44,000 in rural public schools," the report stated.

At the same time, teachers at schools directly run by the BIE fare somewhat better due to a federal law that requires them to be paid at the same level as those in Department of Defense schools. But in South Dakota, only two schools are BIE controlled.

"The law requires similar pay, in part, to help recruit and retain teachers at BIE-operated schools," the GAO said.

HISTORY: Schoolchildren attend a flag raising in 1913, said to have taken place on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Wanamaker Collection

Due to the disparities, tribal leaders, along with the National Indian Education Association, have called on Congress to provide more funding for the BIE system. Teacher salaries largely come from the Indian School Equalization Program (ISEP), one of the line items in the BIA budget.

"ISEP has not seen any meaningful increase in years, and as a result, there has been a significant negative impact on the effectiveness of the schools’ instructional programs," the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose BIE schools are located in South Dakota, said in written testimony to key lawmakers last year.

Those lawmakers responded by providing nearly $403 million for ISEP in the $1.3 trillion #Omnibus spending bill that was signed into law last month. Though the amount is not as much as the $431 million that NIEA was seeking, it's $26 million more than President Donald Trump requested. Separately, $81 million was provided for tribal grant support costs, another increase.

The appropriations committees in Congress also offered some direction to the BIE regarding those funds.

"The ISEP program is expected to continue to enhance access to Native language and culture programs in bureau-funded schools, and the bureau shall report back within 60 days of enactment of this act on how funding has been and can continue to be used to support these programs," a report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act read.

In a separate Inspector General summary made public on Monday, allegations of embezzlement at a tribally controlled school in New Mexico were found to be largely unsubstantiated although a former administrator admitted she attempted to cash a $122,000 cashier’s check from the schools. Federal prosecutors declined to prosecute.

Office of Inspector General Summaries:
BIE Teachers’ Federal Salaries Illegally Supplemented (April 9, 2018)
Alleged Embezzlement at BIE Funded Tribally Controlled Grant School (April 9, 2018)

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