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Handling of Superior’s Indian Education program under fire

Jana Hollingsworth


The parent committee that oversees the Superior school district’s Indian Education program has raised questions about the way the employee in charge of the program has handled federal money, and the district’s response toward its concerns.

For nearly two years, committee chairwoman Jennifer Mcgillan has alerted district administration to problems she and others had noticed concerning Indian Education coordinator Mary Cane, one being the overstatement — by 190 students — in 2011 of Native American students enrolled in the district that qualify it for a type of federal funding.

“We want her to be held accountable,” Mcgillan said of Cane. “It’s a very important program.”

Mcgillan is describing the federal Johnson O’Malley program. Money comes from the U.S. Department of Education based on the number of students enrolled in a district who also are enrolled with a tribal government. Next year that number is less than 15. The district will receive about $2,600 in new Johnson O’Malley money, which goes toward supplemental educational programming for those students, determined by the five-person parent committee.

“The Johnson O’Malley program is there to help our students succeed and get through school in the best possible way,” Mcgillan said. “Without leadership and without somebody that is really passionate … we are going to lose students.”

Missing money

Mcgillan alleges that more than $600 is missing from a March powwow event held for district students, and that Cane was in charge of the money. She said parents also are concerned that Cane hasn’t been teaching appropriate materials to Native American students, often showing movies in class instead of studying treaty rights and Native American law, for example.

Cane didn’t return calls to the News Tribune.

Mcgillan also accuses Kathy Hinders, director of special education and student services, of suggesting the district might look into the feasibility of the program because of the allegation made by the parent committee about powwow money. Hinders denies that.

Parent committees are responsible for overseeing grants related to Native American students. Another duty is evaluating staff performance and making recommendations to the district, Mcgillan said. She asked for such an evaluation of Cane in 2012, according to documents she provided, and asked recently for her position to be terminated. The committee would like to suggest new candidates for the position, she said, with the district completing the hiring process. That process is part of the committee’s bylaws.

Superintendent Janna Stevens said an investigation is underway regarding the financial allegations, noting others also had access to the money. She said she is waiting for the district’s attorney to make a recommendation based on findings, and she’ll decide whether there are consequences based on what she hears. She’s also waiting to hear from the Fond du Lac band on what happens next regarding the discrepancy.

For two years, administration has looked into Mcgillan’s concerns, Stevens said. Mcgillan wasn’t alerted to any outcome because it isn’t public information, she said.

“When we see somebody who is maybe struggling … we try to support and help them through the issues,” Stevens said. “(Mcgillan) may feel like I haven’t done anything. But I know from the documents I have. We have all taken it very seriously.”

Penalties related to embezzling or stealing Johnson O’Malley money can lead to a fine up to $10,000 and up to two years in prison, according to Mike Rabideaux, who administers the money for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for six area districts or schools. He also oversees Duluth, Cloquet, Carlton and the South Ridge and Fond du Lac Ojibwe schools.

Numbers were inflated two years ago, Hinders said, and the district worked with Rabideaux to make corrections.

“The next year we received less money,” she said.

The band performed audits in 2012 at the request of the federal government. The last official student count was conducted in 1995. In other years, the government and band rely on district employees to provide student counts for money distribution.

The band this year received about $98,000 to divide among fewer than 500 students at the six districts and schools. Prior to the audit, Rabideaux was dividing about the same amount — sometimes slightly more — among 1,000 students.

Superior isn’t the only district where student numbers were overstated. Duluth overstated its 2010-11 Johnson O’Malley-eligible students by 187 and Carlton by 58, Rabideaux said.


More enrollment issues

The Superior district also receives federal Title VII money for eligible Native American students, meant to increase their career-readiness skills. That larger sum is roughly $56,000 next year, with nearly the entire amount paid to the two people who run the Indian Education program. A small portion goes for travel expenses.

Paperwork that Cane filled out for next year’s students says 238 Native American students — including those who self-identify and those who provide verification of enrollment in a tribal government or as a descendant — will attend Superior schools. Stevens initially gave a smaller number, 194, which didn’t include students who provide verification, she said. The official number should be 217, Stevens said, when the discrepancy was questioned. She had checked with Cane, who had entered the higher number, she said, because some families hadn’t yet completed paperwork for next year.

“She felt she was able to add (the extra number of) students to the application while working to get the necessary paperwork in place,” Stevens wrote in an email.

Stevens said she directed Cane to contact the Federal Office of Indian Education and adjust the number, which includes those who self-identify and those who provide verification of their status.

“Until we have the necessary paperwork in hand, we should not be claiming the students,” Stevens said.