‘I’ve sort of lost faith’: Wyoming lawmakers consider removing state funding for St. Stephens school

    Wyoming lawmakers are talking about potentially removing state funding from St. Stephens Indian School in the aftermath of the upheaval there this spring.

    “What happened at St. Stephens (was) just unbelievably bad,” Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said last week during a meeting of the legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations. “I’ve sort of lost faith. …

    “We can support it in a different way, but I’m kind of ready to stop funding St. Stephens.”


    ‘A gray area’

    Case’s comments came after several questions from Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, revealed some misunderstandings about the requirements St. Stephens had to meet in order to access state education funding.

    For example, Larsen asked, do St. Stephens graduates have to meet Wyoming education requirements?

    The answer wasn’t clear.

    “St. Stephens has always fallen into kind of a bit of a gray area,” Wyoming Department of Education Native American liaison Rob Black said. “There’s questions that come up over time how much they have to adhere to WDE regulations.”


    St. Stephens receives the bulk of its funding from the Bureau of Indian Education, Black explained, so the school has to follow that agency’s “mandates.”

    The school also has a WDE funding contract, Black said, but the agreement only requires St. Stephens to track and report on its use of state money.

    Larsen seemed surprised by the information.


    “It had always been my impression (that) when we supplemented their funding with state funds that they would meet the conditions of a Wyoming public school and graduate (students) with state board of education requirements,” Larsen said. “If I’m hearing you correctly … that does not happen?”

    Black said he was “not entirely certain.”

    “They try to adhere to both WDE and state education requirements as well as BIE requirements,” Black said. “But the contract doesn’t specifically state that, nor does the law.”


    “But it could say that,” Larsen pointed out.

    “Yes,” Black replied. “We’re open to adding provisions to that contract if the legislature so deems.”

    Wyoming educators?

    Another question from Larsen was: Are educators at St. Stephens required to be licensed to teach in Wyoming?

    Again, the answer wasn’t straightforward.

    “In terms of licensure, I’m not entirely sure,” WDE deputy superintendent Chad Auer said during his report to the committee.

    The BIE has “deployed a variety of staff members from around the country” to teach at St. Stephens since the federal agency assumed oversight of the facility this spring, Auer said, but “I haven’t received the information from the school about whether or not those individuals are licensed in Wyoming, or if they even need to be.”

    “Those are teachers that have been teaching in other locations (who are) here to help St. Stephens through this year,” he explained. “(They’re here) on a variety of different interim scenarios.”

    The BIE is working to hire permanent staff, Auer said, but that’s been a “challenge (for) a number of reasons,” including the time of year, the “general teacher shortage,” a “shortage of qualified applicants” and “stricter requirements in terms of background checks” for employees of federal agencies.

    Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, offered another question for the WDE: Are St. Stephens graduates eligible for Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship?

    That’s what “we would expect,” Larsen said – that “the education they got would allow them to qualify for the Hathaway Scholarship, to have a Wyoming high school graduation certificate.”

    “If we’re wrong on that … we maybe need to push the time-out button and really determine what the intent of that funding is,” Larsen said.

    ‘We didn’t know’

    Ellis agreed that legislators should be “mindful” about the “expectations” that are tied to state funding, but she also expressed a desire to see “some more oversight” at St. Stephens school, “simply because of what happened, and wanting to avoid a situation like that from ever happening again.”

    “It’s just not OK,” she said.

    The Wind River Intertribal Council was responsible for oversight at St. Stephens school before the BIE took over this spring, Eastern Shoshone Business Councilmember Michael Ute said – but local Tribal officials “didn’t know” that.

    “It was a completely new idea,” he said. “We believed that (it was) like a BIE school already.”

    Case said that’s what he thought, too.

    “I stood on the floor of the Senate and said, ‘This is a BIE school. It’s a public school, it’s just run by the BIE,’” he recalled. “We didn’t know in the legislature (either). And we gave all this money, all these years, not knowing the real arrangement. I mean, shame on us. Shame on me.

    “It’s amazing that you had responsibility for a school and you didn’t even know it for years. But believe me, egg is on my face too.”

    ‘Bare-bones’ BIE

    The confusion about who was in charge led to a situation in which the St. Stephens school board “didn’t report to anybody,” Ute said.

    “I don’t think the Councils even had any part of (it),” he said. “They just got the funding, they said, ‘Hey, there’s a big check here from the state,’ (and) they just sent it to St. Stephens.”

    When allegations of misconduct arose at the school this spring, however, the Intertribal Council “finally realized that they did have oversight,” Ute said, so they “stepped in and started removing people.”

    “This part was really confusing,” he said, “because the Tribes were now tasked with taking over the school.

    “We were not ready to do that, so we said, ‘Well, let’s just let the BIE step in.’”

    The federal agency has done a “fantastic job” at St. Stephens so far, Ute said, “but let’s just be honest: If the Bureau takes over a program, it’s going to be bare-bones funding” –so “if we do not get any of the state funding for St. Stephens, (it’s) going to be catastrophic.”

    “If you yank that funding away, it’s going to cause a catastrophic failure,” Ute said. “They’re going to have to let a lot of people go.”

    The Tribal Relations committee didn’t make any decisions about funding for St. Stephens during last week’s meeting, but Larsen did note that several public schools are located within a few miles of the facility, so the “burden (on) families” would not be “insurmountable” if they had to go “someplace else” for school.

    “There’s a lot of resources close by,” Larsen said. “It’s not like there aren’t other educational resources in the area.”

    Larsen is a member of the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, which will “start going through” state department budgets in December.

    He said it would be “helpful” to have “an idea” about the future of state funding for St. Stephens by then.


    Related Posts

    Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?