Dispute Over Indian Education Eases in Minnesota

By Peter Schmidt — March 14, 1990 3 min read

A heated dispute that had threatened federal funding for Indian education in St. Paul appeared headed for resolution last week when members of a federally mandated advisory committee said they would rescind their earlier decision not to sign off on the program.

St. Paul’s Title IV Indian Parent Education Committee had refused to approve the district’s request for a $200,000 Indian-education grant to protest what they characterized as unresponsiveness on the part of district officials to the needs of Native American students.

The advisory committee itself came under attack from other members of St. Paul’s Indian community, 43 of whom signed a petition accusing committee members of “irre4sponsible behaviors and actions” that may produce “serious negative repercussions to the American Indian children.”

Officials of the Minnesota district, who had been leveling similar charges, said the criticism from other Indian leaders was a key factor in the committee’s reversal.

“We are stepping back and allowing the Indian community to settle their differences among themselves,” David A. Bennett, the district’s superintendent, said last week.

“Our strategy appears to be working,” he added.

Last week, one member of the Title IV committee, Mary E. Beaulieu, said she expected the panel to sign the grant proposal by the extended deadline of March 23 “only to get the process going again.”

Ms. Beaulieu added, however, that the committee intends to reserve the right to amend the district’s program as needed in the future.

Long-Running Dispute

The committee’s apparent reversal follows a long period of tension between the district and members of the Indian community. American Indians constitute roughly 2 percent of the district’s enrollment of 34,600.

At issue have been several district actions, including the banning of an Indian logo at a city high school. Some Indian parents also claim they have been excluded from planning for an Indian magnet school.

Tensions flared last month when the advisory committee, required, under terms of the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary Education Improvement Act, to sign any proposal for a federal Indian-education grant, voted not to do so in an effort to pressure the district to address a long list of grievances over policies and personnel.

In a Feb. 8 letter asking for assistance from officials in the U.S. Education Department’s Title IV Indian-education program, the committee’s chairman, James Clairmont, said that refusing to sign the grant proposal was “the only way we could get a reaction from the school district.”

The parent-elected committee charged that the district’s Indian students--who come primarily from the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Winnebago tribes--were not being adequately served in the areas of tutoring, social services, and cultural enrichment.

The committee said it had asked the district repeatedly, without success, to address problems such as an 80 percent dropout rate for Indian children; the labeling of 25 percent of Indian students as in need of special education; a high turnover of qualified Indian staff members in Indian-education programs; and the hiring of non-Indians to deliver Indian-education services, in violation of Indian-preference clauses.

The committee continued to withhold its signature despite a threat by Superintendent Bennett to disband the group and reconstitute it with different members.

“Your conduct violates not only the spirit of the law, but identifies your motives clearly as willing to sacrifice federal money used for the benefit of the Indian children you claim to represent,” Mr. Bennett told the committee in a Feb. 12 letter.

Mr. Bennett said last week that the district has hired an independent fact-finder to investigate the criticisms raised by the advisory committee, as well as those leveled against it.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Dispute Over Indian Education Eases in Minnesota