The atmosphere at last Monday's Ronan School Board meeting was similar to a wake, says Clayton Matt, acting head of the district's Indian Education Committee (IEC), in that it had a quiet sense of order. At stake was the fate of Ben Irvin, the district's director of Indian education.
Matt estimates that about 50 people turned out for the meeting, with a number of them speaking on Irvin's behalf, including Matt, administrators, parents, a tribal council member and a tribal attorney. The testimonies urged the board to renew Irvin's contract-despite the objections of Superintendent Donn Livoni-and went on for about an hour. But it took just a few minutes for the board to vote unanimously not to renew the contract, and then went a surprising step further.
They voted to put Irvin on paid administrative leave effective immediately, essentially sending him home for the duration of his job, which wasn't supposed to end until June 30.
"It was amazing," sighs Matt. "Before the last speaker sat down in her seat, one of the board members was already making a motion to vote."
What makes the decision seem baffling to some is the fact that it was made by an all-white school board-with its most current members having been elected as recently as April 6-about a position created in part to represent native parents, whose children make up 57 percent of the Ronan district.
Matt and others on the IEC claim that Irvin was doing a good job, and add that this is just the latest blow from a superintendent and school board who don't care about the needs of Indian students.
Indeed, this is not the first time the IEC has battled Livoni and the board; the Independent reported on disagreements over how to spend Title IX funds at the end of January. At that time, the former head of the IEC, Anna Sorrell, had just resigned, charging the district administration with racism. Even then, Matt warned that what was happening was only "the tip of the iceberg."
It seems the iceberg has begun to surface, and the IEC is fighting harder than ever to make its voice heard.
"From the school board's perspective, it's a personnel issue," explains Matt. "From the IEC's perspective, they blatantly ignored our recommendations and never consulted us on the problems with his performance. They choose to ignore our issues."
Livoni declines to go into detail about the reasons behind his recommendation not to renew Irvin's contract, but he does say that job evaluations noted some deficiencies that Irvin was unable to improve upon.
"He's not performing his job duties as per the description," Livoni says.
Irvin alleges that what's gotten Livoni "enraged" is that Irvin went against his wishes and spoke to the IEC about certain policy suggestions.
"I told him he's not really my boss," Irvin says. "And he's ranted since then about insubordination."
Bob Voth was the superintendent of the Ronan School Board when Irvin was hired in 1996, and is also someone Irvin credits with contributing to the current strength of the IEC. He describes Irvin's position as "difficult," because although federal regulations require that he represent Indian parents and make sure their input is accounted for, he is technically a district employee, and therefore must answer to Livoni.
"On one hand, he represents the parents to the district," Voth says. "He wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't meet with them on a regular basis. But he's also responsible to the superintendent. It's a continual dance back and forth between the two." Matt agrees. "The bottom line is that he's a district employee. But the way the position is structured, we had the freedom to communicate with [Irvin] and discuss issues with him. For the most part, the superintendent is trying to minimize or prohibit that."
Matt and others accuse Livoni and the board of not feeling responsible to the IEC, although it's congressionally mandated that they solicit and incorporate the IEC's ideas on how to use federal money earmarked for Native American students.
Irvin, speaking Tuesday from his home, says he fears there's an effort at work to put all Indian Education employees out of a job, and calls what has happened so far a variation of "ethnic cleansing."
"If it works here, in the school district with the largest Indian population on the reservation, then it could be a role model for other schools," Irvin warns.
For his part, Livoni says he has not eliminated Irvin's position, and he expects to begin looking for his replacement in "the near future."
But before that happens, Irvin is hoping for an injunction that will give him his job back in about a week. He met with members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council Tuesday afternoon, and they agreed to have tribal lawyers investigate Irvin's options. He says it's the first time the council has gotten "fired up" about the strife that has thus far occurred in the district.
"They are now realizing the seriousness of the situation," Irvin notes.
Matt says he and others on the IEC are trying to get word of the situation out to the community, stating that apathy has been an obstacle in the past.
"We're just trying to notify people, to educate the public," Matt says. "We want to make people aware of what's happening so they can form an opinion. We're very concerned."