Tribe suspects its students shortchanged
Is the Uintah School District shortchanging Ute Indian children in eastern Utah?
The Ute Tribe unveiled its plan Tuesday to launch a study that would determine whether schools near the Uintah and Ouray Reservation that serve its youngsters are receiving their fair share of resources, said Cameron Cuch, director of the Ute Education Department.
If the study finds financial disparities, it could lead to a proposal to form a second public school district in western Uintah County. Such a district would include Indian and non-Indian residents.
Uintah School District officials deny that schools serving Indian students are inadequately funded. The officials point to statistics that show those schools receive more per-pupil money than schools on the district's east side - in the Vernal area.
But Ute Tribe officials say they suspect the district has funneled federal funding aimed at Indian children at three schools near tribal headquarters in Fort Duchesne to the Vernal area.
Cuch said aging buildings and less-than-exemplary test scores indicate problems at Lapoint and Todd elementary schools along with West Junior High.
"We don't believe the school board has a real interest in solving some of the issues over here," he said Tuesday. "We view it as them taking money from our schools and putting it in the east side of the district."
A tribe-financed study will review school-district spending and revenues to determine whether the three schools are receiving proper funding as outlined by federal regulations. It also will consider the financial feasibility of a new district and the impact such a district would have on Uintah County.
"If [a new district] doesn't prove to be financially viable," Cuch said, "we have to find ways to better work with the district and hold them accountable."
But, according to Uintah School District statistics, average class sizes are smaller at west-end schools and per-pupil expenditures are higher there, too.
Schools near the reservation receive in excess of $5,000 per pupil, while those in the Vernal area get about $3,500 per pupil, according to Randy Upton, Uintah District business ad- ministrator. The average class sizes at Lapoint, Todd and West are in the teens, while those on the east side exceed 20, he said.
"There have been allegations that we don't support these schools," Upton said. "But everything they have brought to the table, we have funded."
Upton also pointed to improved test scores at Lapoint Elementary and West Junior High as evidence that the district is not ignoring students near the reservation.
The tribe's study is expected to be completed in June.
The Uintah County Commission would have to approve putting the creation of another school district on the ballot before voters could get their say in a countywide election.
l The Uintah School District has 5,400 students
l A second school district in the county's western end, if created, probably would draw 400 to 600 students.