Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

March 24, 2011

Federal and state proposed budget decreases cut through more than just education

By Kim Swaney

PABLO — If President Obama’s administration and Congress are serious about improving the economy by retraining dislocated workers, and increasing the number of persons with degrees and certificates, then they need to authorize funding for education and training available at tribal colleges and higher education institutions, say Salish Kootenai College staffs and students.

Eliminating or drastically reducing some of the funding could mean risking more than providing an educational opportunity - communities risk public safety due to the high correlation between the lack of education and incarcerated individuals.

According to Reach Higher America, the lack of funding could also mean directly and indirectly impacting children. Children whose parents have dropped out of high school are more likely to live in poverty than children with mothers who have higher education levels. RHA also says that there’s also a risk to our future because of the higher rates of unemployment and the continuance of an uneducated workforce.

“We know that the way out of poverty is through education,” says Dr. Luana Ross, SKC President. “It’s almost a no-brainer.”

There’s been much talk about how proposed cuts at the federal and state levels will affect Montana’s university system but there’s been little discussion about the potential effects on tribal colleges, Dr. Ross says. Recently Dr. Ross along with several key staffs and students sat down with The Missoulian and Char-Koosta News to discuss those potential effects.

Salish Kootenai College’s current annual operating budget is $9 million.

Salish Kootenai College sponsors both a federally- and state-funded Perkins program, which supports students in eight educational and career training programs from dental assisting technology to highway construction. The Perkins programs serve approximately 175 students and a dozen-or-so staff at SKC. The programs also provide career counseling, tutoring, and job placement services to help SKC’s Native American students attain self-sufficiency - which is one of SKC’s vision and mission statements.

“Without those training programs, they [students] are going to have to rely on public assistance,” says Dr. Robert Peregoy, SKC’s director of the Native American Career and Technical Education Program.

And to add more insults to injuries, SKC receives both state and federal funds for Native and Non-native student enrollments. Fewer students mean less revenue generated from the student enrollment numbers.

SKC currently receives $5,400 in federal Tribal College Act funds for each Native American student enrolled fulltime for basic institutional support. If proposed cuts - as much as 22 percent of SKC’s current budget, it would equate to approximately 40 less native students.

Forty less native students, means an additional $216,000 SKC could potentially lose.

The real losers too, are the communities and students who look to SKC as a way to make their lives better and a way to fulfill dreams.

Angelita Reino Ramon, a 48 year-old Tohono O’odham tribal member from Arizona came to SKC to heal from a horrific and traumatic past. Ramon says her sons are all dead.

“I lost my three sons - the first one in 1997 and then I almost lost one of my daughters in 2000,” Ramon relates. “My last son was killed by gang members and one of the another ones was killed by the border patrol.” Tohono O’odham members have frequented Mexican borders to their aboriginal lands just as much as northern tribes do who travel in and out of Canada to their ancestral grounds.

“I used to have a dream about buffalo - but there’s no buffalo there (Arizona), then I came here and I saw the buffalo,” exclaimed Ramon. The buffalo she saw in reality is the spirit of SKC - the Bison, their team mascot.

When Ramon came to Montana, she had not thought about getting her GED. Ramon’s thoughts were how she needed time to heal from the loss of her children. Ramon says she’s proud of the GED program at SKC even though she admits she’s “feared education.”

Ramon mirrors many of those students’ goals in the Adult Basic and Literacy Education program by wanting more than her GED. She now wants to obtain her degree at SKC and counsel others. In 2009, 30 percent of the graduating class were former SKC ABE students at SKC.

More than 77 thousand adults in Montana (38%) do not have a high school diploma and more than half of Montana’s inmate population in prisons and correctional facilities, lack a high school diploma or GED.

Statewide, 5773 students were served through the 20 ABLE programs at $91 per student per year. On the contrary, the Department of Corrections spends $94 per inmate each day.

Studies have shown that salaries rise from $2,400 to $10,700 more each year depending on the level of education they pursue. Not to mention, the return on investment is greater when investing in students than in inmates. Students have the potential of earning a decent wage, which contributes more than a million per year to Montana’s economy.

“If the President and Congress are emphasizing education and training with a goal of increasing 5 million more Americans with certificates and degrees, then they should be increasing, not decreasing Perkins funding by $264 million,” says Dr. Peregoy.

Lon Whitaker, SKC’s Vice President of Business and Related Affairs, says the cumulative losses facing SKC total approximately $500,000 and that exponentially it could mean $1 million by the time it’s said and done.

According to Whitaker, that’s more than 11 percent of SKC’s total operating budget.

Whitaker says that the college is taking planning steps to cover all possible fiscal scenarios and will move forward with the proper plan when necessary.

“We will do everything we can to maintain the programs in whole or in part, but inevitably the budget will have to be balanced,” stated Whitaker.

Salish Kootenai College is an affordable choice for people who want to further their education but proposed cuts could ultimately raise tuition for its students or force SKC to reduce programs they offer.

Currently the Montana Legislature and House Appropriations Committee are positioned to reduce non-beneficiary funding by 53 percent for the next two years. Right now SKC receives $3024 per non-beneficiary student and if the Montana Legislature succeeds with their proposed cuts, non-beneficiary student funding could be reduced to $1425 per student. Last year SKC received more than $475 thousand in non-beneficiary funds.

Non-beneficiary students are identified as in-state residents and non-Indian.

Steve McCoy, SKC ABLE Director, is a former non-beneficiary student and also a graduate of SKC. McCoy said he actually wanted to go out-of-state for college, but it was more cost effective for him to remain here.

“Most of our students want to stay close to home and they want to work in the communities,” says McCoy.

Andrew Zimmerer is a non-beneficiary student and a SKC graduate who says he wanted a degree in business management and needed to stay with the family business in Pablo, “Zimmerer’s Tackle,” which is what attracted him to SKC.

Karol Bird and DeeDra Reum are both non-beneficiary students who both dropped out of high school years ago to begin raising their families.

Karol Bird had been married for 36 years and never gave a thought about earning a GED. She had worked and kept busy throughout the years, but life-changing circumstances forced Bird in a new direction. She hasn’t looked back since.

“I was a single-mother who comes from a family of a bunch of minimum-wage cashier clerks,” quips Reum, and she knows she is better off now and has the confidence to obtain her bachelor’s degree.

“It’s about decimals, fractions and punctuation - yes,” says Reum. “It’s also about confidence - it’s about walking into a room and not thinking you’re less than anyone else because you didn’t graduate,” concluded Reum about SKC’s GED program.

Dr. Ross says she has created a seven-member Budget Committee composed of faculty, staff, and administration.

“We are assessing and evaluating every department, program, and unit on campus in an effort to cut waste and “trim the fat.” If the Adult Basic Education funding remains at zero, SKC must find the money for this crucial program. Finding the money may mean looking at other programs to financially trim Dr. Ross says.

Several weeks ago Dr. Ross implemented a hiring freeze and communicated with her staff of the political climate and budget difficulties facing all higher education institutions through the country.

“Our primary goals are to protect SKC’s educational mission and to protect jobs,” insists Dr. Ross.

Last Thursday, March 17 White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement on the authorization of the three-week continuing budget resolution, “We will continue to oppose harmful cuts to critical investments in education, innovation, and research and development that we need to grow our economy and create jobs - as well as oppose additions to the bill that have nothing to do with fiscal policy.”

How well SKC and higher educational institutions prevail when democrats and the GOP come to a consensus on the budget, will be anyone’s guess.

“SKC has always had the philosophy of looking ahead seven generations. We are going to be here for seven generations, and the next seven and the seven after that,” says Roger McClure, SKC Career Services Director.

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