By Beau Eastes

The Bulletin

WARM SPRINGS — Big changes could be coming to the Jefferson County School District.

The school district and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ Tribal Council met at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa on Tuesday for more than three hours in a preliminary work session regarding the two groups’ next memorandum of understanding for educational services. The current agreement, a five-year partnership that produced the new Warm Springs K-8 Academy, expires at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

District representatives, including Superintendent Rick Molitor and all five school board members, heard a number of concerns from tribal leaders. Drop-out rates for Native Americans, a lack of Native American curriculum — including teachings on the tribes’ sovereignty, constitution and language — and questions about how funds from the Federal Impact Aid Program were spent highlighted the sometimes tense talks. Impact Aid funding gives financial assistance to school districts that contain parcels of land owned by the federal government that aren’t on the tax rolls, such as reservations.

“You don’t just celebrate being a Native American for a month,” said Deanie Smith, a member of the tribes’ education committee who was critical of the district’s Native American cultural month celebration. “You’re Native American for the whole year, your whole lifetime. … These kids can’t wait until college to find out who they are and where they come from.”

Tribal leaders and district representatives both discussed the idea of a separate school district and/or high school located in Warm Springs, based in part on the success of the new K-8 school.

“Our kids are struggling,” said Kahseuss Jackson, a member of the tribal council. “I’d like to look at some different models from some different places. What are our options for tribal cultural curriculum? We shouldn’t be afraid to change the system.”

Jackson specifically mentioned researching school district and tribal relationships in Idaho, the Dakotas and Pendleton in Eastern Oregon. The Pendleton School District created the charter school Nixya’awii High School in Mission on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation about 6 miles east of Pendleton.

“There’s success stories out there of tribes operating their own middle and high schools,” Jackson added.

School board member Tom Norton Jr. said he was open to the possibility of a new Warm Springs school district if the two groups decide that is the direction they both want to go.

“I feel like we’re having some of the exact same discussions that took place when my dad was on the school board 20, 30 years ago,” Norton said. “Questions about Impact Aid money and teaching tribal language in schools. Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

“Before we can do our next agreement, that’s the question we need answered,” Norton said about the possibility of a Warm Springs school district, an idea that gained traction this last December after a meeting on Impact Aid funding. “That’s the elephant in the room that needs to be decided one way or another.”

No decisions were made Tuesday other than both factions agreed they should meet again soon, ideally before the end of February. Molitor promised to come up with a list of goals the district hoped to achieve in the next memorandum of understanding, and Jake Suppah, the tribes’ secretary/treasurer, agreed to do the same.

“We want our kids to be successful,” said Carlos Smith, also a member of the tribal council. “We want them to do well in school, go to college and come back and help the tribe. When we get back together, we’ll see if our priorities match the school board’s priorities.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829; .