The Ronan School District has dealt with parental anger, mass resignations and lawsuits over Indian education policies in the last year, but things may be calming down in the near future.
A racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the district has been settled, a new Indian Education Coordinator has been selected, and the community is looking forward to school board elections in May.
Without admitting that there was anything wrong with the old method of doing business and electing school board members, the embattled Ronan School District No. 30 quietly agreed to a settlement agreement that ends a lawsuit brought by Native American residents of the school district and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The decision, signed by U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy on Jan. 13, ended a dispute in which Clayton Matt and Jeanine Padilla, who are both enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, alleged that school district’s at-large method of elections discriminates against Native Americans.
Attorney Laughlin McDonald of Atlanta, Ga., who represented the ACLU, said the speedy settlement was the result of a number of factors.
“The pattern of Indian office-holding was so stark, it really wasn’t defensible,” McDonald notes. “Only one Indian was ever elected [to the school board] and he joined the tribe as an adult, about the time he was elected. When it became known he was a tribal member, he couldn’t get re-elected, even as an incumbent.”
When the lawsuit was filed in July 1999, the Ronan School District, which has a majority of Native American students (57 percent), had no Native American members on the school board. According to McDonald, the Ronan case was an extremely strong one. In a school district where the voting population is two-thirds white, just the one non-white representative had ever been elected to the school board. The suit contends that it was easy for non-native voters to block Native American candidates.
The suit asked the court to create single-member districts, rather than continue the at-large system, to give Native Americans the same opportunity to elect candidates of their choice as non-natives.
In his settlement order, Molloy approved the creation of two electoral districts within the present school district. The school board had been previously directed by the county superintendent to expand to seven members, based on the size of the district’s student population.
McDonald commended the school board members for the way they worked to reach a settlement short of a lawsuit. “No one is happy about being sued, but the level of civility was high and the results were positive,” he says. “A suit like this doesn’t have any losers. The district, the parents, the students—everyone wins.”
Under the settlement, two members will now represent one district with a largely Native American population, and five members will be elected from a second, larger district. The first district is a long, narrow strip of land, running from south of Kicking Horse almost to Pablo. It does not include the town of Ronan within its borders. According to court documents, the new district has a population that is 62 percent Native American, based on the 1990 census count.
The order states that the school district “does not admit liability” but adds, “the parties are in agreement that there is a reasonable or substantial factual and legal basis for the plaintiff’s claims.”
The new districts will make a difference, McDonald says, because “the excluded body becomes much more inclusive. Now there is a real challenge to the Indian community to get behind good candidates and get out and vote.”
An election will be held this spring to fill the two newly created seats at the same time that one seat in the other district comes up for election. One new term will be for two years and the other for three years, to be determined by lot. Candidates for the three seats must reside in the district they seek to represent.
Molloy has not yet issued a decision on a request by the plaintiffs for fees and legal costs. McDonald says his office will file a request for those in the next few days.
The lawsuit issue was one of two conflicts that emerged last spring. When the all-white school board voted in April to not renew the contract of the district’s Indian Education Director Ben Irvin, it caused another furor in the community. After the board accepted the recommendation of Ronan School District superintendent Donn Livoni to terminate Irvin, the board violated its own policy, which required it to consult with the Indian Education Committee before acting. Federal regulations also require the Indian Education Committee to participate in such major decisions.
Irvin filed an unsuccessful appeal of the decision with Lake County Superintendent of Schools Joyce Decker Wegner, asking her to accept jurisdiction in the matter and hold a hearing on his dismissal. He is still fighting the dismissal through the court system.
In October, however, the Ronan School District hired a new Indian Education Coordinator. Julie Cajune was recommended by a committee that included teachers, local citizens, and Indian Education Committee members and was endorsed by the district superintendent. Her salary was set at $45,000 a year, $11,000 more than the $34,000 a year her predecessor Ben Irvin earned. Cajune was curriculum coordinator of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribal Education Department last year.
Cajune is now in charge of Indian curriculum and programs for Indian students and must administer programs involving various grants and significant federally funding that come to the district because of its high percentage of Native American students.