From Classroom to Courtroom 

New legal actions bring the Indian Education crisis to a boil

After months of struggle, the embattled Ronan School District 30 is being legally forced to find a solution to what Indian parents, educators and voters say has been a long-standing disregard for their community by the district's school board.

District 30, in Lake County on the Flathead Reservation, has a majority of Native Americans in its student body. The school board, however, has not one tribal member.

Adding to the frustration of the Indian community is the fact that this spring, the board voted unanimously, without the required consultation of the Indian Education Committee, not to renew to the contract of Indian Education Director Ben Irvin.

As a result of both of these contentious situations, legal action has now been taken to bring them to resolution.

Arguably the more far-reaching of the two actions is the suit filed Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union. Specifically at issue in the case is the method by which school board candidates are elected in Ronan. The suit asks the court to create single-member districts, rather than the at-large system in place now, which would give Indians the same chance non-Indians have to elect candidates of their choice.

Photo by Chad Harder
Ben Irvin, the former director of Indian Education for Ronan School District 30, is asking the Lake County Superintendent of Schools to help resolve the case of his sudden dismissal by the school board this past spring.

Laughlin McDonald, an Atlanta-based attorney and lead counsel for the ACLU's suit, says that after a career of arguing voting rights cases, he feels the one in Ronan is particularly strong. With only one exception, he states, the voting population of Ronan, which is two-thirds white, has elected only white candidates to the school board.

"It's as stark a pattern as I've ever seen," McDonald explains. "There are Indian candidates running year after year and they aren't elected."

Specifically, since the early 1970s, 17 native candidates have run. Ron Bick, the editor of the Char-Koosta newspaper, which is published by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was elected to the school board in 1990. At around the same time, he became an enrolled tribal member. Then three years later, when Bick ran for re-election, he was defeated.

"It's as if his tribal membership had caught up to him," McDonald says.

According to the ACLU, a number of "white rights" groups, such as Montanans Opposed to Discrimination and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, have been especially active in Lake County, where non-Indians own almost half of the land on the reservation. As a result, McDonald believes, the inability of Native candidates to get elected "speaks for itself."

He also points out that the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 originally to help African Americans obtain equal representation, was expanded in 1975 to include "language minorities," meaning Native Americans, Asians and Latinos.

The act requires McDonald to prove that, in Ronan, a majority Indian district can be drawn, that Indians vote as a cohesive bloc and that a white voting bloc regularly defeats Indian candidates. According to an analysis of voting data conducted by ACLU experts, McDonald believes he can establish all three criteria.

Equally confident is Ben Irvin, whose attorney filed a brief on June 25 with Lake County Superintendent Joyce Decker Wegner. Irvin hopes the brief will be a successful first step in the appeal of his April 12 dismissal by the school board.

The brief asks Decker Wegner to accept jurisdiction in the matter, in accordance with state school procedure. If she decides to assume jurisdiction, a hearing on the matter will be held at the Lake County Courthouse, where she will act as judge.

The basis of Irvin's complaint is that, on April 12, the school board voted unanimously to accept district superintendent Donn Livoni's recommendation that Irvin's contract not be renewed, despite the fact that the vote violated the board's own policies by not consulting with the Indian Education Committee.

At the same time, the board placed Irvin on immediate paid leave until his contract expired on June 30. IEC members and parents were outraged by these actions, which they saw as inexplicable considering the dozens of people who spoke out in support of Irvin at the meeting.

District 30, because it accepts federal money to further the education of its Indian students, is required by federal regulations to actively participate with the IEC, which Irvin says it clearly did not. However, he fears the situation is so hotly contested that Decker Wegner will refuse jurisdiction.

"This is the one thing that may bring the house of cards down," he asserts. "But she [Decker Wegner] is in the political hot seat."

Decker Wegner refused to comment, saying that the final paperwork is due in her office on Friday, July 9, but July 30 is the earliest she will make her decision.

For his part, Laughlin McDonald says the ACLU's case could go on for years, but notes districts often quickly agree to adopt an alternate plan. He hopes the suit will be settled before the next school board election in April 2000.

But for all the litigation currently flying onto court dockets, Irvin points out District 30's Indian students are still suffering. A number of key Indian Education staff members have quit in the past few months, and the district has yet to fill Irvin's vacated position.

"Even if we reverse what has happened, we can't recreate the staff," Irvin says.

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