At its annual Public School Appreciation Day on April 12, the Cherokee Nation awarded checks totaling $3.2 million to 92 school districts in northeastern Oklahoma. The badly needed funding will benefit nearly 24,000 students within the tribe's 14-county jurisdiction area.
Each year, the tribe allocates 38 percent of its tax revenues from tribal car tags to area schools. The unrestricted grants, totaling almost $30 million since 2002, are awarded on a per-student basis and come with "no strings attached," according to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker.
"I believe the superintendents know best what the needs of their districts are," said Baker. "We are providing additional funds to address the needs of your schools and it allows us to help fill the gaps in your budgets."
This year, however, the tribe is adding an additional $300,000 in support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs, which will include robotics kits, teacher-coaches and two-day teacher institute professional development workshops, through Cherokee Nation Education Services.
Superintendents and school administrators from the school districts welcomed the funding, as the so-called “sequestration” of the federal budget has strained Oklahoma school districts that were already struggling to meet their obligations.
David Cash, superintendent of Locust Grove School District, said his district is hoping to simply maintain their current operating budget with the additional funds.
“We're basically saving jobs,” said Cash. “Our state funding has declined by 20 percent and Oklahoma is the third highest decline in the nation. In the past, we put this money toward student services, but now the best use is to keep teachers in their jobs.”
Through its partnership and collaboration with school districts, the Cherokee Nation grants are therefore also benefiting both Indian and non-Indian children alike.
“They are the only tribe I know of that provides this kind of funding,” said Cash. “It benefits all the students and schools in the region and that can only be a good thing in the long run.”
In addition to salaries, district officials had other plans for their funding, including everything from basic supplies, to books, new computers, and tutoring programs. As the full effect of the sequestration is only beginning to trickle in across the country, school administrators are watching their budgets cautiously in anticipation of large funding cuts.
“We don't know what our budget will look like come July,” said Geri Gilstrap, superintendent of Stilwell Public Schools in Adair County. “Due to sequestration, we don't know what our allocation will be. So we're really blessed to nest egg this money in our general funds until we know effect this will have on our budgets.”
In the near future, Baker says he only sees the Public School Appreciation funding expanding.
“The Cherokee have always revered education,” said Baker. “The car tag program helps to generate sovereign tribal dollars to help continue these important programs for all of northeastern Oklahoma. We expect it to just get bigger and better.”