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Tribe Blasts Feds for Education ‘Reforms’

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Education are trampling tribal rights with their new "Blueprint for Reform," according to a lawsuit filed by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in a South Dakota federal court on Oct. 2.

According to the tribe's 31-page complaint, the reforms would reduce staff at reservation educational line offices that serve to provide federal oversight and resources-such as grant money and special education-to tribal schools.

Some of the offices would be closed or consolidated into educational resource centers located in urban areas, sometimes hundreds of miles from the reservation, the tribe says, adding that the government did not properly consult it about the reforms - a violation of earlier treaties.

The federal government attempted similar restructuring in the past, which seven South Dakota Sioux Tribes including plaintiff fought in Yankton Sioux Tribe v. Kempthorne in 2006, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier found in favor of the tribes in that case, and the Bureau of Indian Education agreed to "1) maintain educational line offices on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud, Crow Creek/Lower Brule, Turtle Mountain, and Standing Rock Reservations; 2) staff each office with a minimum of three employees and have a combined total of twenty-four employees; [and] 3) notify and particularly describe to the plaintiff any funding issues which prevent the bureau from fully staffing each office," according to the complaint.

But now the tribe says the Department of the Interior and its secretary, Sally Jewell; the Bureau of Indian Education and its director Charles Roessel; and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn are violating the 2006 settlement agreement as well as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Under the act, "Indian tribes are allowed to assume the operation of schools formerly operated by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs," but it also "requires that the federal government must continue to provide oversight, technical assistance and monitoring of its tribal assumption of education services and schools," the complaint says.

The government has already allowed the reservation education line offices to become understaffed, according to the complaint.

"In January 2013, the Bureau of Indian Education notified at least one tribe in the Great Plains Region that it was not going to fill positions being vacated at the education line offices," the tribe claims, adding that defendants "did not consult with tribes prior to their affirmative decision to not fill vacant positions in the Great Plains region as employees quit or retired," and that it "encourag[ed] employees to quit or retire under the ruse of budget cuts, and then never bother[ed] to inform - let alone consult with - tribes about the situation."

Although the government reached out to South Dakota tribes for "input" on the reforms through a series of meetings between 2012 and 2015, the bureaus consistently ignored tribal suggestions, withheld budget information, failed to give tribes documentation to review prior to meetings, and refused to provide transcripts from their "listening sessions" with tribes, according to the complaint.

"We are forced to just take the defendants' word that their plan was based on what they heard from various stakeholders," the tribe says in the complaint.

The government also proposed new administrative positions to oversee Indian education from Washington.

"We do not know, and defendants would not tell us, if the funds being used for the new positions are funds that could otherwise be used directly for classroom purposes rather than for administrative positions in Washington, D.C.," the tribe says. "Unless we are given that information, we cannot meaningfully consult."

The tribe is asking the court to "compel the defendants to keep the education line offices open in their present locations and to keep the present levels of staff, including all present personnel ... until such time as the defendants have demonstrated to the court that they have complied with all applicable federal statutes, regulations, and policies, as well as with the United States Constitution and applicable Indian treaties."

But the tribe also says it does not seek monetary damages, as "a later award of damages cannot compensate for the disruption of essential education services to the Indian schools ... and the immediate and irreparable harm to the Indian students and tribal members affected."

The tribe is represented by Tracey Zephier, who was not available for comment before deadline. Neither the Department of the Interior nor the Bureau of Indian Education responded to requests for comment.

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