Legislators might try to reverse decision of S.D. governor who moved Indian education office

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Legislature might be asked in January to put the South Dakota Office of Indian Education back where it had been under the two previous governors.

Then-Governor Mike Rounds re-established the office in 2003 as part of the state Department of Education and the Legislature officially provided for it in 2007 at his request. Then-Governor Dennis Daugaard also had it in the Education Department.

But last year, the office moved to the state Department of Tribal Relations as part of Governor Kristi Noem’s 2019 reorganization. The transfer took effect without a challenge from legislators.

The office lost its director earlier this year. The Indian Education Advisory Council at its July 17 meeting voted 13-0 to have it moved back to Education, but Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute wants the office staying under him where Governor Noem put it.

One of those advisory council members who wants it put back in Education again is Sherry Johnson of Sisseton. She is tribal education director for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate government. She told the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee on Thursday that no one contacted her, or any education director for other tribes in South Dakota, before Noem issued the reorganization order.

Secretary Flute is a former Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal chairman and council member. He has stopped participating in the legislative committee’s meetings, and Governor Noem has declined to meet with the committee this year about traffic checkpoints that several tribal governments set up as precautions against COVID-19.

Representative Tamara St. John said she would support Johnson’s request that the state Indian education office be moved back to the Department of Education. St. John, a Sisseton Republican, is a historical preservation archivist for the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal government.

The legislative committee’s current chairman is Representative Shawn Bordeaux, a Mission Democrat who has been an official in the Rosebud Sioux tribal government. Bordeaux said Thursday he has legislation in the draft stage that would return the state Indian education office to the Department of Education. He wants to hear from more members of the state advisory council.

The council has a meeting set for Thursday, October 1.

Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission said he asked Flute and state Education Secretary Ben Jones about the transfer last year during their Senate confirmation hearings. Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the advantage from Flute’s perspective is the office can deal directly with tribal governments. But the flaw, Heinert said, is the office still must check with the Department of Education beforehand.

“I don’t know if we can change his mind,” Heinert said about Jones. “We’re hearing from tribal ed directors it’s not working.” Tribal schools are doing things differently than non-tribal public schools, he said, and there’s no Indian education director. “I support the move back. I didn’t support the move in the first place,” said Heinert, whose mother has worked for the state Education Department. 

Senator Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican, said Noem hasn’t cooperated with the committee. “They don’t attend the meetings. They refuse to attend the meetings,” Russell said. He added that the committee by “begging” for Noem’s perspective was “playing a game” that “rewards certain behavior we don’t want to reward.”

House Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, suggested that a few committee members approach Secretary Jones and the governor’s office to try to better understand the Noem administration’s position on the Indian education office. Haugaard said the Legislature should keep in mind its state-constitutional mandate that schools should be “equally open to all.”

Bordeaux agreed with Haugaard on conferring first but said the legislation would be ready if the talks with Jones and the governor’s office don’t work out. “We’ll give it the old college try,” Bordeaux said. “We’ll go ahead and make one more attempt to work together.” 

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