Bureau of Indian Education Extends Search for New Leader

By Corey Mitchell — July 12, 2016 2 min read
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The Bureau of Indian Education is extending its search for a new director in an effort to attract more candidates.

The application period will close Monday, August 8, a month after the original deadline.

The agency, which operates under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior, serves about 45,000 of the nation’s roughly 950,000 Native American students. The posted salary range for the job is $168,315 to $185,100.

The new director will help oversee more than 180 schools on or near American Indian reservations and lead an agency that has been plagued by financial mismanagement and rampant staff turnover for decades. Education Week reported last summer that the agency has cycled through more than 30 directors in the last 40 years.

The BIE’s last director, Charles “Monty” Roessel, was stripped of his duties and demoted in March after federal investigators determined he used his influence to get jobs for a relative and a woman with whom he was romantically involved. He improperly used his position to help the woman secure multiple jobs and to get the relative hired on the Navajo Nation, according to a report from the Department of the Interior’s inspector general.

Roessel had led the bureau since December 2013 after serving as interim director for two years. Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, will take over as the bureau’s acting director.

“We have some pretty dire statistics out there on graduation rates across all of Indian Country, but in particular within our schools. We want to ... do better for our Native youth and our schools,” said Bledsoe Downes, an enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “It’s really critical that the director be connected with that mission.”

Those graduation rates she speaks of are bleak. Just two-thirds of American Indian children graduate from high school, the lowest of any racial or ethnic demographic group in the nation.

The figures have drawn the attention of the White House and Congress. The Obama administration’s Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of the Interior, seeks to address barriers to success for Native American youth.

To that end, the BIE is in the midst of a reorganization that aims to shift its role from being a provider of education for Native American students to being more of a partner with tribal communities. The goal is to provide tribes with the know-how to run their own schools.

“All too often, we’re called to serve, and we think that [just applies] to our tribal communities ... but there is such an opportunity to be in federal service and have as meaningful a contribution to our schools and to our Native youth,” Bledsoe Downs said. “There was a time in our history when what was decided out of D.C. might sit crosswise with local tribal communities, but that’s not the case anymore. You can be here and really help implement the vision of local tribal communities.”

Bledsoe Downs said she will not apply to lead the BIE as permanent full-time director.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.