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Superintendents: Inequities in funding repairs in native schools versus public schools

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Posted at 5:28 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 17:31:25-04

NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — There are only three school districts in New York State that have Native American schools on Native American land: The Salmon River Central School District, the LaFayette Central School District and the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District. All three districts said they are experiencing the same issue at their native schools: not enough funding for building repairs.

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"Our Native populations are being treated inequitably when it comes to capital project work at all three school districts," Daniel Ljiljanich, the superintendent of Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, said.

Niagara Wheatfield is home to the Tuscarora Indian School. The school is covered in crumbling bricks, leaking ceilings and cracked windows.

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"It's not fair and by God it's wrong to see these buildings and the conditions in which the kids go to school here but yet within the same school district in the public buildings, they're up to date, modernized and safe. They're modernized for educational demands for today. That building is not," Dr. Stanley Harper, the superintendent of the Salmon River Central School District, said.

Dr. Harper said the St. Regis Mohawk School in the Salmon River Central School District is experiencing similar issues as well. LaFayette Central School District Superintendent Jeremy Belfield said the Onondaga Nation School is in poor condition too.

The three superintendents said the state has made significant investments in the upkeep of public school buildings, but not in Native American schools.

State records show New York has done $54 million dollars of work on school grounds in Niagara Wheatfield.

For the same time period, New York State has put about $188,000 into the Tuscarora Indian School. The district said that school needs more than $7.5 million dollars in repairs.

"That's not right. I know that's a form of racism on their part to say it's complicated. It is not. A building is a building," Neil Patterson, a member of the Sand Turtle Clan of the Tuscarora Nation, said.

Superintendent Ljiljanich said the most pressing issue the Tuscarora Indian School faces is structural. The weight of the brick walls is causing the steel beneath to warp, and the weight of that leads to glass windows cracking.

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"It's got to be done. I would say it almost pays to build a new school if it comes down to dollars and cents, and how much it's going to take to get it back to number one condition. It almost pays to build a new school," Chief Leo Henry, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Tuscarora Nation, said.

Ljiljanich said each passing year, the need for repairs and concern for students' safety increases.

"We had an engineer out and they said it's still structurally sound, but when will that no longer be true? That's what we're really worried about," Ljiljanich said.

That's why the three districts are coming together to ask the state for $20 million for each nation school to complete repairs.

"There's so many things that the Education Department can do. There's so many things the state can do. If everybody works together, just like the three superintendents are working together, this whole nation can do a whole lot better," Patterson said.

The superintendents said they hope the state can factor in money for repairs into the 2023 budget. They said they are currently working with legislators to draw attention to these issues.