This story is republished from Wyofile
Two things were in short supply at St. Stephens Indian School on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation even before the sequester began in March 2013: federal funding, and information about when that funding was coming.
Under a new federal accounting and payments system put in place during the current federal fiscal year, the funding for the school temporarily dried up. The Bureau of Indian Education failed to respond to funding requests for five months, said Mike Hejtmanek, superintendent of the school. After the agency transferred money into the school’s account in July, August and September 2012, the funding stream ended when the fiscal year began on October 1.
Mike Hejtmanek has been a school administrator for 32 years. After waiting five months for funding promised by the BIE, Hejtmanek turned to Sen. Mike Enzi for help.
St. Stephens, which is a contract school funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, didn’t see another cent until February 28, 2013, Hejtmanek said. Funding resumed three days after Sen. Mike Enzi interceded on St. Stephens’ behalf.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Hejtmanek, who retired as a public school superintendent in Worland before coming to St. Stephens. “If they don’t send it to us, they don’t send it to us.”
The school dipped into its reserves to pay salaries and other bills during the first half of the school year, but found itself short on funds once again in May, when it was obligated to pay its 24 teachers’ their full salaries for the summer.
“We give them five paychecks at the beginning of the summer, Hejtmanek said. “We hoped that between May 27 and June 30 the feds would send us the money.”
Instead, St. Stephens has been sending requests for payments — “drawdowns,” in fed speak — but the money has yet to appear in the school’s accounts. Dominic Littleshield, the chairman of the St. Stephens school board, signs the drawdown form, which is then faxed to the BIE office.
“It used to be that you faxed them the form and the money would come in less than a week,” said Pam Swiderski, the school business manager. “Now we never know when we might get the money.”
Even when the money comes, there is less of it than in previous years. The school’s funding was cut 5.96 percent from 2011-12 levels when the sequester began in March 2013. This year, the school is budgeting for an additional eight percent cut.
If it were just a matter of making cuts, the situation might be more manageable, said Littleshield, who attended St. Stephens through 8th grade and graduated from Riverton High School in 1981. “The thing that really bothers me," he said, "is the timing of the funding. They don’t send the money when they are supposed to. And that is really scary.”
Bart Davis, the deputy director for the Bureau of Indian Education in the western US, does not believe the schools are facing as much uncertainty as St. Stephens’ administrators claim.
“The schools were told that sequestration would reduce their budgets by 5.21 percent,” Davis said. “Sequestration hits everyone equally. The schools knew what they would get.”
Hejtmanek counters that the BIE has warned the schools on a conference call that additional cuts could be coming in October, well after the school year has begun and the schools have committed to an annual budget.
Although Davis acknowledged that the BIE (and other agencies) had changed their funding and payment system during the current year, he stopped short of saying that he was aware of glitches that delayed payments. He referred questions to the Washington, D.C. office. Officials on the East Coast have yet to return calls.
To make ends meet without cutting too deeply into reserves, St. Stephens is eliminating jobs and cutting salaries. So far, they have turned two paraprofessional jobs into part-time positions, laid off a custodian and cut six teaching assistants.
“We aren’t going to have as many people in the classroom,” Hejtmanek said. “We are going to need more help from parent volunteers.”
But with 243 students in 13 grades, they have little duplication of jobs. With one teacher for each elementary school grade and one each for sciences, math, and social studies in middle school, they cannot cut many teachers. Two teachers were asked to change assignments. All of them, like Hejtmanek himself, took a seven to eight percent cut in pay to help keep the school open. The school also cut expenses by raising deductibles and premiums on the school health insurance plan.
Two teachers have left for jobs in the public schools since the sequester took effect, but the rest seem ready to stick it out, Hejtmanek said.
“I’m very grateful to the whole staff for their dedication,” Hejtmanek said. To make the decisions easier and the cuts more comprehensible, school administrators have opened the financial books during meetings with the districts’ 75 employees. “We tell them exactly where the money is coming from and where it’s going,” he said.
St. Stephens enjoys an advantage over many of the other 183 schools in the BIE system around the country: support from the state. The school gets as much as $1.2 million from Wyoming to increase low BIE teacher salaries to levels that allow St. Stephens to recruit against neighboring districts.
In addition, the money goes for teacher training, staff development, student testing, and incentives to reward teacher and staff attendance and achievement.
Much of the federal money is earmarked for specific purposes, including transportation, operations and maintenance, etc. It is not possible to repurpose a surplus in one of these areas to cover teacher salaries or other needs. This year the school is putting a new surface on the outdoor track. That federal money could not be spent for a core educational need.
“BIE is very compartmentalized,” Hejtmanek said. “That’s one of the hardest things about the way we are funded.”
The state and federal funding together added up to a $5.6 million budget in the 2011-12 school year, with $4.6 million coming from the BIE. In 2012-13, the school budgeted for $5.2 million. But instead of the expected $4.2 million from federal coffers, the actual cash made available during the last school year was $3.5 million.
“It’s hard to run the school on $3.5 million or $4.5 million in federal funding” said Swiderski. “It’s getting quite tight.”
The school had been careful with money for years. It dipped into reserves and made up the shortfall. So far, it has continued to provide the full range of services to students.
“We probably have enough to withstand six percent cuts for another few years, although we would have to make some hard choices,” Hejtmanek said. “We won’t be closing out doors next year or the year after.”
Photo credits, from the top: St. Stephens School was founded by Catholic priests and staffed by nuns 125 years ago. Since 1975, it has been a contract school funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (Ron Feemster/WyoFile); Mike Hejtmanek has been a school administrator for 32 years. After waiting five months for funding promised by the BIE, Hejtmanek turned to Sen. Mike Enzi for help (Ron Feemster/WyoFile); Dominic Littleshield was a student at St. Stephens from kindergarten through eighth grade. Today he is chairman of the school board. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile)
Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.