Photo caption: Osage Congressman Eli Potts address the Congressional Culture Committee on Sept. 7. Courtesy Photo
Osage Congressman Eli Potts has requested a Congressional Study of the Osage Language Immersion School.
According to Potts’ interim study request, “It is my hope that this interim study will chart a path forward and generate a plan for the future of educational needs facing the Osage Immersion School.” The request is a study of the school’s accreditation, funding sources, education planning, school board establishment, location/space and special service professionals.
Immersion School Headmaster David Webb and Osage Language Department Director Vann Bighorse met with the Congressional Cultural Committee on Sept. 7.
“We believe in your mission, we believe in your goal, the problem I see, and the problem those of us sitting here at the table is, yes, it’s a Constitutionally mandated task – but we’re charged by the Constitution to do other things as well. We can’t bankrupt a Nation to move forward in one area,” Potts said to Webb. “So, I believe that there has to be a plan in place to move forward ... I want to see us move forward with accreditation, I want to see us move forward with a charter school – however, we need to set this up. But this body has to be a participant in those discussions and I firmly believe that. You mentioned you need a school board to be able to have some oversight. All of those aspects are going to be heavily involved in the legislative branch. Those issues aren’t going to be resolved here at the table today.”
The Immersion School is requesting $1.2 million for the 2019 fiscal year and plans to expand the school with third-grade next year. Congressman Archie Mason noted that the first all-Indian charter school recently opened in Oklahoma City and encouraged Webb to look at their business model.
Congresswoman Paula Stabler said she was behind the Immersion school 1,000 percent but she did not like the fact that Osage students were being turned away. Webb said there are currently 27 children on the waiting list. The student to teacher ratio is 5 to 1 and the class sizes are small with 10 students in each class. Each class has a certified teacher and a teacher’s assistant, Webb said. Stabler also had questions about accreditation, which the school just applied for and the process could take up to two years.
“I think one of the motivations here too is that there are students being turned away. I think that’s a shame when we have this opportunity,” Stabler said.
Congresswoman Maria Whitehorn said she was concerned about the lack of space for the school to grow. Currently, the school is in a five-room building with a commons area, a kitchen, an office, and two bathrooms. She also expressed concern about the school’s financial planning into the future, calling it a “nip and tuck, a wing and a prayer.”
“My biggest concern, as a person who looks at the dollars and cents of it, is to offer something ... when we offer something annually to try to make what we have work, and, I don’t want this to look or end up being a failure to these students we provide these services for because we don’t have sustainable financial planning to move us forward,” Whitehorn said. “That’s my only concern because we’re offering a wonderful service and we’re employing Osage people and we’re covering the language – so those are my concerns, and they have been ever since we’ve started down this road.”
Director of Operations Casey Johnson said the Osage Constitution charges the Nation with developing quality early childhood learning programs for Osage children and the protection and promotion of the language, culture and Osage traditional ways.
After the committee meeting, Osage citizens took to Facebook to criticize Potts for saying the Immersion School could bankrupt the Nation when the “Big 3” of the Burial Assistance, Higher Education Scholarship Fund and the Health Benefit card, and its supplemental programs, are requested at $19 million for the 2019 fiscal year and could grow higher in years to come as more Osages take advantage of the benefits.
The Osage Casinos give the Nation an annual operating budget of $45 million, and with $19 million of it going to the “Big 3,” that leaves $26 million for the Nation to administer services and run its programs, which include the Office of the Chiefs, the Executive branch departments and programs, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch.
Osage citizen Celena White, who is also a former Congressional Clerk, posted the Education section of the Osage Constitution on her Facebook page. She pointed out that the Constitution mandates early childhood education programs to be developed “within the Osage Reservation.” She said the Congress should take money from the higher education scholarship to meet the funding needs of the Immersion School. Congresswoman Shannon Edwards is requesting $8.1 million for the scholarship fund – although she stated in a recent Education Committee meeting she is agreeable to hear proposals on an essay requirement for the scholarship.
Questioning the funding for the “Big 3” is politically unpopular since absentee voters can decide Osage elections. It has been stated often that the “Big 3” are the only programs that serve all Osages – even though the Constitution states education programs be developed for Osage children on the reservation.
Edwards is requesting $450,000 for the Burial Assistance fund, $8.1 million for the scholarship fund (which is outsourced to Scholarship America), and $10 million for the health benefits fund (which is outsourced to WageWorks Inc.).
Cultural Committee Chair Congresswoman Angela Pratt said she understands that each Congress member is passionate about different issues and that many programs come through each committee asking for additional funding. She said the reality is that the Nation needs to get better at economic development to be able to fund more initiatives, such as the school. However, she said the school is producing Osage speakers.
“One of the benefits, I would say, is every child in that school can speak more Osage than probably 95 percent of the people sitting in this room right now, 95 to 98 percent,” Pratt said. “That’s the benefit and that’s what’s going to help sustain us as a people over time and it’s working, that’s what I can say.”