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Idaho District Rakes In 'Chunk of Money' From Tribal Casino

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Superintendent Robert W. Singleton sometimes finds it hard not to dream too big.

In addition to the state and federal dollars his 569-student district in the Idaho Panhandle receives, it also shares in the profits generated by the neighboring Coeur dAlene Tribal Bingo Casino.

This year, the Plummer-Worley school district's draw totaled $202,000, nearly 5 percent of the district's $4 million annual budget and 2.5 percent of the roughly $8 million the casino netted last year.

"It's a pretty significant chunk of money," Mr. Singleton said.

In what appears to be a unique relationship, the Coeur d'Alene tribe of American Indians has funneled profits to the local public schools since 1993, when the gaming hall first opened.

The tribe included in its 1992 gaming agreement with the state a provision to set aside 5 percent of its casino profits for education. That 5 percent is split evenly between the Plummer-Worley district and the tribe's own 70-student K-8 school.

Nationwide, Indian gaming is a $4.4 billion business, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission, an independent federal agency. Many of the 184 tribes that run gaming operations in 28 states plow profits into myriad social programs, including education.

But that money usually is used to set up college scholarships or to support--or create--a tribally run elementary or high school. Routinely sharing casino profits with a public school district is rare, said Lorraine Edmo, the executive director of the National Indian Education Association in Alexandria, Va. ("Indian Tribes Put Their Money on Gaming To Boost Education," Dec. 7, 1994.)

"It sounds unusual to me and quite refreshing," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

'Soft Money'

The Plummer-Worley district sits smack in the middle of the Coeur d'Alene reservation, 345,000 acres of timberland and rolling wheat fields.

About 40 percent of the district's 569 pre-K-12 students are American Indian, with the vast majority coming from the Coeur d'Alene tribe. About 70 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

The 1,300-member tribe and the school district share more than the town of Plummer, where both have their main offices.

A medical clinic the tribe helped establish furnishes nursing services to the schools for a small fee. Tribal law-enforcement officers often help supervise the district's evening or after-school activities, and the tribe has brought cultural and sports events to the schools, Mr. Singleton said. An outdoor classroom on nearby Coeur d'Alene Lake is the product of their cooperation, too.

"They're the ones we can rely on," Mr. Singleton said.

What the superintendent tries not to rely on too much is the tribe's gaming check, what he calls "our soft money." As the casino venture boomed, the district has seen its share grow each year--from just $3,000 in 1994, to $25,000, then $75,000, and now $202,000.

Because of the political volatility of gaming, Mr. Singleton said the district does not use the casino dollars for its core programs. Instead, it uses it for extras, such as a Coeur d'Alene language program and after-school programs.

While some view the tribe's school support as nothing more than a smart public relations move, the tribe says it's simply tradition.

"We believe in sharing," said Laura L. Stensgar, the tribe's marketing director for gaming. "This is our community, and they're part of that community. It's an investment not just for our kids but for the community at large.

"We're trying to take care of our generations to come."

Uncertain Future

But the future looks uncertain. Republican Gov. Phil Batt has maintained that some games in the casinos like the one the Coeur d'Alene tribe runs violate Idaho law.

The issue illustrates common tensions over gaming between states and tribes across the country. ("Congress Weighs Intervention in Battle Over Indian Gaming," July 12, 1995.)

And while the Coeur d'Alene tribe is going ahead with plans to set up a National Indian Lottery, for which the small tribe made national news a few years ago, the tribe faces legal challenges from several states suing to block the lottery from competing with their own.

The Coeur d'Alene tribe has estimated that revenue from the national lottery could reach $200 million a year.

It's those numbers, plus projected casino growth, that make it hard for Mr. Singleton not to start drafting wish lists.

"It's scary. Those dollars would be equal to our entire budget," Mr. Singleton said. "And this district has some major needs."

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