Another blow struck the troubled Ronan School District No. 30 last week. Bob Boyer, the Native American Studies teacher and director of after-school activities for Indian students, submitted a letter to the school board declaring his intention not return in the fall.
Although Boyer says his resignation was more of a career decision than a reaction to the recent problems between district administration and the Indian Education Committee-a group of parents meant to represent the voices of the Indian community-Boyer describes the environment of the community on the whole as being "really twisted."
"There are issues in both camps, and what we've been seeing is just the tip of the iceberg," he explains. "There are fundamental problems with the way the district is run."
Boyer's decision comes on the heels of the school board's vote on April 12, at the recommendation of superintendent Donn Livoni, not to renew the contract of Ben Irvin. Irvin, the director of Indian education for the district, was placed on paid administrative leave until his contract ends on June 30.
Irvin's attorney, Ranald McDonald, says he is currently reviewing the circumstances to decide if they warrant an appeal to county school officials. And Janet McMillan, an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, has been authorized to examine the termination on the council's behalf as well.
At issue is what IEC members say is an ongoing disregard, on the part of district administrators, for the needs of Native American students, who comprise more than 50 percent of the schools' population.
Clayton Matt, the acting head of the IEC, says they have been repeatedly ignored, despite an official agreement that stipulates the group must be consulted on Indian education policy decisions.
This is one of the reasons that Boyer, a Native American from Canada who has held the position for six years, chose to get out of the stressful situation he feels his job has become. He felt caught in the crossfire, he says, between an indifferent school board and a frustrated Indian community.
"I disagree with the way Ben was handled and the way the board treats the Indian community," Boyer says. "The parent committee is in a tough position, they've really had to fight for some basic things."
More exasperating, he adds, is what he calls Livoni's unwillingness to consult with the IEC, even when the issue is as crucial as how to spend federal money earmarked for Native American students.
Although Boyer says there is room for improvement in Indian education programs, he feels Irvin was doing a good job, and believes that without IEC input, there will be no positive changes.
"They got rid of the Indian education director without IEC consultation," he says. "You can't function when you're opposed on every end."
Boyer adds that the current strife between the administration and the IEC is the reflection of perhaps a hundred years of bad blood between the native and non-native communities living on the Flathead Reservation, one that began with the Land Acquisition Act.
"A lot of non-Indians aren't acknowledging the basic rights of Indians," Boyer notes. "It's almost easier if people are racist to your face. Now we have institutional racism and insidious decision making, and people don't even realize they're involved in it."
He also states that treating Indian people as a minority on their own reservation, where they are a dominant cultural force to say the least, has led to administrative decisions that have been detrimental to the community. Only part of the solution, he proposes, is for the Indian community to vote tribal members onto the school board, in order to change the administrative make-up. As he points out, no Indians currently serve on the board.
"Right now there's not a lot of vocal opposition," Boyer says. "Part of my resignation is realizing that the community is not standing up. I'm a teacher, not a politician. I'm not interested in the 'us and them' that has been brewing for a number of years."
Livoni, for his part, calls Boyer's letter of intent "his decision" and says that Boyer's complaint of the overwhelming stress he feels on the job is "his opinion." He wants the IEC's help in finding a replacement for both Boyer and Irvin "as soon as possible," he adds, but declines to make any further comment.
Clayton Matt acknowledges that he received a letter from Livoni about filling the vacant positions, but says it was disappointingly vague.
"There's no detail, it suggests no plan," Matt says. "It completely ignores the fact that they just got rid of an individual and only says, 'Let's move on'."
He fears that if the methods of handling Indian education issues in the district aren't changed soon, anyone who attempts to fill either Irvin's or Boyer's position will have a tough time. In the end, he says, the only solution is to enact serious dialogue among the school board, the IEC and the tribal government.
"We must establish a way of holding discussions about what the issues are and how to resolve them," Matt states. "Agree is a big word, but once we agree we should be able to hold [administrators] to it. Until that happens, we've hit a wall."