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Advocates fight for more funding for Indigenous schools in NY

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Indigenous schools say they’re in crisis across the state, after, advocates say, they’ve been underfunded for years.

One of those is the Onondaga Nation School in the Lafayette School District. Officials say the school is facing a number of pressing issues, including a gym that is badly in need of an expansion, a need for more special education and academic intervention services, and an out-of-date fire alarm system.

Andy Mager is an organizer with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, or NOON. He’s calling on state lawmakers to increase funding for the Onondaga Nation School to $20 million in the upcoming budget.

"It's about equity,” said Mager. “It's about providing adequate needs for their children just as we would want for the children of Syracuse or Liverpool or Fayetteville or New York City."

Lafayette Superintendent Jeremy Belfield said Onondaga Nation School doesn’t have access to the same multiple revenue streams as the rest of the district’s schools. He said the state has traditionally underfunded the school, leaving it to share $3.4 million with thirteen other properties across the state.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed budget increases that pot to $35.7 million. That includes $6.1 million for the Onondaga Nation School. Belfield said that will address some of the most pressing issues, including repairs to the roof, fire alarm system, and HVAC system. However, it’s not enough for the school’s expansion.

Belfield said the school hasn’t had a major expansion since the 1990s when there were about 80 students. In the past ten years, the school has had between 120-140 students. He also said the gym is undersized, especially for a school that produces many highly skilled athletes. Belfield said he’s very appreciative of advocacy efforts on the school’s behalf.

Mager points to a treaty from the 1700s in which the government promises to provide for the education and health of Indigenous communities and said much more needs to be done to help these schools.

"Here we are today with people who are really trying to rebuild their culture,” said Mager. “I believe that we have a debt that we owe them, and this is a great opportunity to step up, and take responsibility for some of that."

NOON is also calling for $20 million in funding to go to two other Indigenous schools in New York state, the Tuscarora Nation School and the St. Regis Mohawk School.

A spokesperson for the New York State Education Department said the department is requesting $40.5 million in the 2022-2023 budget to support the capital needs for the New York State Schools for the Blind and Deaf, the Tuscarora Nation School, the Onondaga Nation School, and the St. Regis Mohawk School.

The spokesperson added, “The health and safety of students is of utmost importance. If the buildings and facilities in which children are to learn are unsafe, outdated or in need of repair, then the high-quality learning that every student deserves may not happen, despite the best efforts of educators. Equity in the allocation of resources and supports necessary for development and delivery of high-quality, culturally affirming education is a priority of the Board of Regents and the Department. We are continuing to advocate for full funding for the capital needs of the nation schools.

The annual amount appropriated for the capital needs of the nation schools is insufficient to meet the need, and has been capped at $3.4 million for many years. In recognition of the capital needs of the nation schools, NYSED annually requests additional funding for capital projects for three Nation School buildings, but such funding has not been included in the final enacted state budget."

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.