Indian Country Media spotlights a May 2015 report from the Lakota People’s Law Project recounting the self-serving relationships and contracts, first revealed in Laura Sullivan’s landmark NPR report of October 2011, through which South Dakota officials have allegedly enriched themselves under the guise of helping American Indian children.
The title of the LPLP report, The New Boarding Schools, gets me thinking about an aspect of the GEAR UP scandal that’s been sitting on my desktop since September, when we learned GEAR UP business manager Scott Westerhuis and his family died by shotgun before their house went up in flames. The players involved in the GEAR UP scandal—Stacy Phelps, the American Indian Institute for Innovation, Keith Moore, Dan Guericke, Rick Melmer, the Department of Education—were involved in an effort to create a new boarding school for American Indians in the Black Hills.
In 2010, South Dakota applied for a $74-million Race to the Top education grant. The main application and appendices draw as the “cornerstone” of the application the creation of a year-round residential charter school built and operated by the American Indian Institute for Innovation. Proposed for a site near Whitewood with a view of Bear Butte, the school was to offer American Indian students in high school and the first two years of college a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum.
Here’s the AIII pitch from the application itself:
The American Indian Institute for Innovation (AIII) proposes to develop a pre-eminent year-round residential, Science,
Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) based educational opportunity for American Indians, at first in South Dakota, but with a view to replicability across the nation. The AIII model is unprecedented. This comprehensive transformational institution will lead to sustainable change. It engages future leaders with rigorous curriculum, relevant real world experiences, and supportive mentor-based relationships in an environment infused with Indian culture. It is a solution being proposed for the American Indian by the American Indian.
AIII has established partnerships with Tribal communities focused on supporting their students through mentoring, internship and research experiences and cultural guidance. The AIII residential year-round model will educate student cohorts from the beginning high school years through the first two years of college with a specific focus on creating American Indian professional leaders in STEM and health care to serve Tribal Communities. [South Dakota Race to the Top grant application, January 2010, pp. 30–31].
The application cited Phelps’s work in the GEAR UP program as evidence that a STEM curriculum would provide value to American Indian students. At the time of the application, education officials said this charter school for American Indians had been in the works for a few years—i.e., at least since Rick Melmer’s time as head of the Department of Education under Governor Mike Rounds.
The 2010 Race to the Top application included the following timeline for development of not just one but two AIII demonstration schools:
The application does not make clear where AIII would establish the second STEM demonstration school.
In a budget summary, the application designated salaries for an AIII CEO, a superintendent, a development coordinator, and an administrative assistant:
The AIII school budget envisioned gearing up to hire a CFO, payroll clerk, accounts payable clerk, human relations officer, principal, technology integrationist, diversity coordinator, school nurse, two secretaries, a registrar, a study hall monitor, a home and tribal coordinator, a librarian and an assistant, several coaches, two counselors, 37 support staff, and 29 teachers. Throw in travel budgets, and all that staff would cost $14.7 million over five years. AIII would spend an additional $6.8 million over five years on school outreach. The PAST Foundation of Ohio would receive $1.3 million over the first four years to help set up the STEM boarding school.
$33.2 million would have gone to construction of the school itself. $9.7 million was designated for dorm renovations, $6.2 million for classroom renovations, and $17.3 million for physical plant renovations, including geothermal, solar, and wind energy. (A blueprint of the campus is available from The Kubala Washatko Architects of Wisconsin.)
By year 5, AIII anticipated having 400 students on campus who would have brought in $1.9 million in state funding and 300 students who would have brought in $4.68 million in Bureau of Indian Education funding. AIII also anticipated drawing $33.2 million in grant revenues—90% of the Race to the Top dollars designated to tribal and local schools—by providing professional development for teachers statewide in STEM curriculum.
Another key part of the 2010 Race to the Top grant application was passage of charter school legislation. That year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 63, which authorized the creation of a pilot charter schools for American Indian students. SB 63 conditioned approval of any such pilot school on receipt of federal grants to pay for it. Among those testifying on behalf of Senate Bill 63 were Education Secretary Tom Oster, Stacy Phelps for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, Dan Guericke on behalf of Educational Service Agency 3 (which is, essentially, Mid-Central), and GEAR UP project director Keith Moore from USD.
The application included letters of support from numerous state officials, including our entire Congressional delegation (Herseth Sandlin, Johnson, and Thune) and then USD Dean of Education Rick Melmer, who said the program would help train teachers for STEM education.
The feds turned down South Dakota’s Race to the Top application. Governor Mike Rounds said shucks, that boarding school was a good idea:
The state asked for $74,000,000 to fund a year-round residential charter school for Native American students. The school would include grades 9-12 plus two years of college. It would emphasize science, technology, engineering and math.
“We really thought if we could bring it together in the Black Hills of South Dakota it would be a great place to provide another option for young people that wanted to take the next steps to get into higher education and continue on,” Gov. Mike Rounds said [“S. Dakota Loses Shot at $74M,” Native Village: Youth and Education News, 2010.04.01, “condensed” from that Sioux Falls paper, poorly cited with a dead link].
According to the Native Village report, Dan Guericke blamed the failure of the application (for which he was main contact person and which his co-op appears to have prepared) on the state’s lack of charter schools, unified data systems for teacher evaluations, and merit pay for teachers. Centralized teacher evaluation and merit pay were key components of the education reforms passed by the Legislature in its next Session but defeated by voters in 2012.
Later in 2010, the Indian Education Summit, arranged by the South Dakota Department of Education, Mid-Central Education Cooperative, the University of South Dakota, Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, and Technology and Innovation in Education, gave Stacy Phelps, Keith Moore, and Governor Rounds awards for working really hard on American Indian Education.
AIII continues to promote the STEM academy on its website. I have been unable to determine so far from online resources exactly what land the academy is supposed to sit on or whether AIII has actually acquired the land. But I have heard that former Lower Brule tribal chairman Michael Jandreau had acquired some land for his tribe in the Northern Hills, and in the Race to the Top appendices, Jandreau is listed as one of the trustees of AIII, along with Phelps, astronaut John Herrington of Idaho, and filmmaker Chris Eyre.
AIII has no independent campus of its own, but in recent years AIII appears to have implemented something like the charter school model by contracting to take over tribal schools at Lower Brule, Wounded Knee, and Takini. As AG Marty Jackley has revealed, Scott Westerhuis was in Takini for work the day he learned that the state was canceling his co-op’s contract to run GEAR UP.
We thus see that GEAR UP was part of a grander scheme on the part of state education officials to use federal dollars to promote STEM education and charter schools. Most remarkably, the state would have created a new boarding school for American Indian students.