Tribal Government & News

Oregon senators seek Interior inquiry into operations at Chemawa Indian School

10.28.2021 Dean Rhodes Federal government, Education


By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley asked on Monday, Oct. 25, that the inspector general for the U.S. Department of the Interior answer questions about Chemawa Indian School’s accounting practices and update the department’s 2015 review of the Salem school’s policies to determine whether progress has been made to increase student academic achievement.

Wyden and Merkley’s letter noted that the Office of the Inspector General released two reports in July 2015 on academic achievement and violence prevention policies at Chemawa, concluding then that the school “was not properly assessing the academic needs of its students” and was “unable to effectively prioritize its resources to ensure the successful educational achievement of its student population.”

The 2015 review, the senators wrote, determined the school had made significant progress on violence prevention policies since previous reviews in 2008 and 2014, but also that the school’s measures were merely “adequate” to prevent violence against students and teachers at the school.

“In the six years that have passed since your office’s review, we have continued to receive complaints about alleged financial mismanagement at the school,” the senators wrote to Interior Inspector General Mark Greenblatt. “These allegations have been difficult to evaluate due to the school’s opaque financial practices. Our offices have repeatedly asked school officials for basic financial data. To date, we have not received a satisfactory response to those requests. In response to questions from Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Bureau of Indian Education acknowledged that there is oversight on all the expenditures of school budgets, but not detailed financial audits.”

Wyden and Merkley wrote that those findings about accounting at Chemawa appear consistent with findings from the Government Accountability Office, which determined in 2013 that the Bureau of Indian Education lacks clear procedures for decision-making and that in turn resulted in the bureau acting outside the scope of authority and undermining school officials’ ability to assess student performance.

The senators also said that the Government Accountability Office also determined in a 2014 follow-up report that the bureau doesn’t adequately monitor school expenditures using written procedures or a risk-based monitoring approach, contrary to federal internal control standards. Even though the Bureau of Indian Education responded in 2018 with a new financial and program oversight policy, the senators said their offices continue to receive complaints about alleged misuse of financial resources.

“Our congressional delegation has worked in good faith with school officials and BIE to obtain answers on how the school is addressing these issues,” the senators wrote. “However, after several years, we remain deeply concerned that we cannot receive satisfactory answers to the most basic questions related to the school’s accounting practices.”

Wyden and Merkley asked Greenblatt to update Interior’s 2015 review of the school’s policies to determine whether and to what extent any progress has been made to increase academic achievement.

Chemawa, located in Salem, is the oldest of four remaining federally run, off-reservation boarding schools in the country, having opened 1885. It had 337 students enrolled in the 2020-21 school year.

It has also come into renewed focus after new Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland announced in June that the U.S. government would investigate the deaths of Native American children at government-run boarding schools and assess the lasting societal and cultural consequences of the Indian boarding school policy.