The public schools on the isolated, windswept Fort Peck Indian reservation here are at the frontier of the federal sequester, among the first to struggle with budget cuts sweeping west from Washington.
The superintendent can’t hire a reading teacher in an elementary school where more than half the students do not read or write at grade level. Summer school, which feeds children and offers them an alternative to hanging around the reservation’s trash-strewn yards, may be trimmed or canceled.
And in a school system where five children recently committed suicide in a single year — and 20 more made the attempt — plans to hire a second guidance counselor at the high school have been scrapped, leaving one person to advise some 200 students.
“The ones who are supposed to help us the most, hurt us the most,” said Floyd Azure, the 56-year-old tribal chairman, who views the sequester as another in a long line of promises broken by the federal government. “This is disgraceful.”
Few schools in America depend more heavily on the federal government than those on Indian reservations, which have no private landowners to tax. Washington pays about 10 percent of the budget for a typical U.S. public school district; on federal lands, it contributes as much as 60 percent.
While Washington debates the pros and cons of the sequester, the effects are already tangible in Poplar. Even marginal cuts can have a major impact on a reservation struggling with chronic substance abuse, unemployment and other ills, tribal leaders and residents say.
“Five percent isn’t a lot when you have a lot,” said Florence Garcia, the president of Fort Peck Community College, which is looking to close two community wellness centers because of the sequester. “But when you don’t have much, five percent makes a big difference.”
The school system — for which federal funding already had been reduced before the sequester — is looking for $1.2 million in additional cuts, partly by not filling jobs that go vacant. The Indian Health Service, the reservation’s main source for health care, will also be cut by 8 percent, and Head Start, which serves 240 toddlers, will be cut by 5 percent, officials said.
“Instead of trying to cut, we should be adding,” said Kent Hoffman, the vice principal at the high school, who is also filling in as athletic director, another job that will not be filled. “To me, this is insane.”
Located in the northeast corner of Montana, north of the Missouri River, Fort Peck is home to two Indian nations, the Sioux and the Assiniboine, which jointly form the Fort Peck tribe. The tribe has roughly 13,000 members, but just half live on the 2-million-acre reservation.
The unemployment rate is more than 50 percent, and problems with alcohol and methamphetamines are widespread, according to tribal leaders. About three of every four children live in poverty. At the high school on any given day, only about half the students show up, said Principal Rayna Neumiller-Hartz.
Stray dogs wander the streets of Poplar, the government seat, which has a few tiny markets, a bar and several gas stations. The streets are littered with the charred remains of buildings because there is no money to clear away debris after a fire.
The struggles of Fort Peck drew national attention three years ago after five middle schoolers committed suicide and 20 others tried to. Tribal leaders declared an emergency, congressional hearings were held and mental health services were beefed up.
“A lot of bad things happen on the rez,” said Ashlee Whitman, 15, who went to live with an aunt after her mother committed suicide and dreams of escaping by joining the military. “When people get bored here from watching TV, they smoke weed or get drunk. There’s nothing to do here.”
Federal dollars are central to keeping Fort Peck’s residents afloat.
Isabelle Youngman, who tracks down truant children for the schools, has been helped by aid from Washington all her life. She attended a federally funded Indian boarding school in South Dakota and then Fort Peck Community College before working as a Head Start teacher’s aide for 13 years.
With the school system, Youngman holds an $11.95-an-hour job that is partially funded by the federal government. She just bought her own home — a rarity on the reservation — with a mortgage guaranteed through the Agriculture Department’s rural housing program. She lives in that two-bedroom, $30,000 house with her great-nephew, who was orphaned and has developmental delays.
Youngman, who is proud to be sober and employed, said the cuts concern her because she knows firsthand how federal dollars can make a difference. “It’s scary,” she said. “I try not to think about it. I put it in God’s hands.”
The reservation’s three schools, clustered together off the main road, offer a haven of sorts. Some families come before school to shower in the gym because they lack running water at home. Others wash their clothes in the laundry machines at the high school.
The school board bought a movie license so the schools can show first-run films in the evenings or on weekends. “This is the only safe place for many of these kids,” said James Rickley, the superintendent.
The federal government contributes about about 30 percent of the $13 million budget for the 830 students attending Poplar’s elementary, middle and high schools. The rest comes from the state of Montana.
The sequester is actually a second wave of federal belt-tightening to hit the Poplar school system this year. Poplar had expected to receive 85 percent of the aid that it was qualified to get under a federal funding formula. But Poplar was notified last fall it would receive about 70 percent instead.
That meant a loss of $425,000, plus $800,000 more in sequester cuts through the end of the school year in June, according to school officials. Among other things, school officials won’t be able to replace two retiring music teachers or the second high school guidance counselor, who left in February.
Officials are also unable to move ahead with plans for vocational training at the high school, which would allow students to take advantage of the economic boom unfolding 70 miles east at the oil and natural gas fields in North Dakota.
Jobs in the oil fields are plentiful and labor is scarce — employers such as Halliburton are flying in workers from around the country, and the local airwaves are filled with help-wanted ads. But the positions are out of reach for many on the reservation, who frequently lack basic job skills, transportation or the ability to pass a drug test.
The money immediately reduced by the sequester is known as Impact Aid, annual federal payments to schools on Indian reservations, military bases, public housing complexes and other federal properties. In the 2011-2012 school year, the federal government paid about $1.2 billion in Impact Aid to 1,500 districts, according to John Forkenbrock of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
Fort Peck also receives two streams of federal dollars to educate poor children and those with disabilities. That money will be hit by the sequester starting in the fall.
“You guys are getting a triple whammy,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a Washington gathering earlier this month with officials from Indian reservations and military bases. “Impact Aid was set up to protect you from the vagaries of the budget. And you’re taking the brunt of this.”
In Poplar, Rickley thinks he can finish the school year without laying off any of his 152 employees by keeping vacancies open, forgoing purchases, canceling training and relying on everyone to do more.
“We have been very frugal, but we’re reeling from this,” said Rickley, a 64-year-old Pennsylvania native in his first year as superintendent. “This money is not ‘aid.’ It’s not ‘discretionary.’ It’s what is owed to these people.”
Even the little things can matter, officials said. The schools have stopped buying the paper workbooks, printed on flimsy stock, that elementary school students bring home with them.
“These are kids that move from house to house and who don’t even know who’s picking them up from school,” said kindergarten teacher Suzanne Turnbull. “To them, these books are a huge deal.”