When Congress enacted the across-the board budget cuts known as the sequester in March, they cut $60 million for American Indian schools across the country.
Since people living on reservations don't pay state property taxes, the schools heavily depend on federal aid. For the Navajo Nation that means larger class sizes, fewer school buses and putting off building repairs.
A Bumpy Ride
Navajo children travel up to 70 miles to get to school. Many of them ride small school buses over roads that look like off-road trails for weekend warriors.
Orson Brigman drives six miles over sand dunes every day to pick up students. All of the drivers complain of back problems. And you can imagine what those bumps do to the buses, literally shaking the screws lose.
Brigman says a bus that should last the district 10 years lasts five. The district is not sure if it will have the money to buy a new one next year.
Making Do With Less
High school principal Sharlene Navaho says her school has seven open positions due to attrition, but sequestration means she will have to leave those vacant next year. Teachers say in addition to larger class sizes, they will have to buy scissors, crayons and other supplies themselves.
At the Tuba High School gym in Flagstaff, Ariz., you can see sun shining through the holes in the ceiling. The nearby primary school is also in desperate need of repair. Part of the building, including the cafeteria, has been condemned and it is lacking new bathrooms and safe playground equipment. Those upgrades will have to wait.
Tuba City Unified School District Superintendent Harold Begay says they are anticipating more budget cuts next year and this affects teachers' attitudes.
"When you have an unreliable revenue flow always being underfunded to say that it hurts morale is putting it mildly," Begay says.
Seventy percent of students in his district graduate, but Begay says many of them are not prepared to compete in the outside world. He's working hard to change the whole community's low expectations — something especially hard to do with less federal funding.
This report was done in collaboration with Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a public radio reporting project that focuses on the changing demographics in the American Southwest.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration are beginning to affect schools in Indian Country. For the Navajo Nation, that means larger class sizes and putting off building repairs. And - and this is a big deal, where children travel up to 70 miles to get to school - fewer buses.
Laurel Morales, of member station KJZZ, got on board one bus for this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Orson Bigman sits behind the wheel of a small school bus. He's the director of transportation for Tuba City schools. He drives over what looks like an off-road trail for weekend warriors.
ORSON BIGMAN: All right, here we go. Usually I tell my drivers take a little bit of a run at it. If you have to, slam it down.
BIGMAN: You can go over the sand dune.
MORALES: This is a school route?
BIGMAN: This is a school route.
MORALES: Bigman says he drives six miles over sand dunes and rocks to get to two students' bus stop. And on rainy days he may not get to them at all because the road is washed out. All of his drivers complain of back problems.
BIGMAN: As you can see, I try to keep my body as stiff as I can kind to kind of move along with the bumps. And don't get to the point where you're really hitting the bump hard, getting a shock to your body.
MORALES: And you can imagine what those bumps do to the buses, literally shaking the screws loose. Bigman says a bus that should last the district 10 years, lasts five. And they don't know if they will have the money to buy a new one next year.
School Superintendent Harold Begay would like to take a few members of Congress on this bus ride.
HAROLD BEGAY: The powers that be, lawmakers and so on, they don't see this. You know, they've never been out here.
MORALES: Sequestration has already meant the loss of $60 million in federal Impact Aid for schools that serve American Indian children across the country. And administrators like Begay are anticipating more cuts next year.
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MORALES: Begay walks me past the Tuba City High School gym where sun shines through the holes in the ceiling. At the nearby primary school one wing and a cafeteria have already been condemned. That building is in desperate need of new bathrooms and safe playground equipment. But those upgrades will have to wait.
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MORALES: On the playground Principal Sharlene Navajo watches the students enjoy their field day. A teacher yells instructions through a bullhorn as students try to pass eggs to each other on paper plates. Navaho says the school has seven open positions due to attrition. But sequestration means she will have to leave those vacant.
SHARLENE NAVAJO: There's going to be more responsibility placed on our teachers. But I can see that I have a staff that's going to not let that be the determining factor for our students.
MORALES: Teachers say in addition to larger classes, they will have to buy scissors, crayons and other supplies themselves. Superintendent Begay says all this has a big effect on teachers' attitudes.
BEGAY: A scale of one to 10, you're constantly at the lower end. You know, three, four, five, when you have an unreliable revenue flow, always being underfunded. To say that it hurts morale is putting it mildly.
MORALES: But Begay and a lot of people on the Navajo Nation say they're used to doing more with less. It seems to be a reservation motto.
BEGAY: We almost have to develop a pathological immunity to, you know, any kind of government funding - especially federal funding.
MORALES: Seventy percent of his students graduate, but Begay says many of them are not prepared to compete in the outside world. He's working hard to change not just teachers' but the whole community's low expectations. But that's especially hard to do with less federal funding. Begay says one of the most important things they can teach children is resiliency - something people living in Indian Country have to learn the hard way.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
MONTAGNE: This story comes to us as part of the journalism collaboration Fronteras: The Changing America Desk.
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MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.