A Shinnecock Indian Nation family is challenging a longstanding policy that determines where students from the tribe can go to school, opting to send their children to the Tuckahoe School instead of Southampton this year.
According to Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer, the three children, who have not been identified, started attending school at Tuckahoe in January after several months of petitions to Tuckahoe’s three-member School Board. At the time, the district opted to admit the students—who were not attending any other school district—in the interest of the students, officials said, without seeking any state aid or tuition from the family.
Each year, the State Bureau of Indian Affairs authorizes a contract to pay tuition for each Native American student being taught in a district. However, the state determines the school district where the student will attend class. For the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the state has authorized a contract with the Southampton School District and last year paid just over $3 million in tuition for the roughly 110 students attending the district.
Mr. Dyer said that this year the Tuckahoe School District did not apply for state money for the three students. Still, the state informed the district there was no money available for this year, and that until a new contract could be negotiated, the students would not be allowed to attend Tuckahoe in the fall of 2015, because doing so would violate the state’s contract with Southampton.
However, the state did agree to meet with Tuckahoe officials to discuss whether students might be allowed to attend school in the district using state tuition money in the future. A meeting has not been scheduled.
“We took the kids in this year, because they were out of school and we wanted to make sure that what we were doing was the right thing for the kids,” Mr. Dyer said. “I think from the perspective of the state aid, they said we cannot do it because we are not a part of the contract. But we are waiting to see if we can become a part of that contract, because we have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers.”
According to Mr. Dyer, the district was first approached in October by the family, who said they preferred the smaller Tuckahoe School over Southampton, which has three schools as opposed to one. At the time, Mr. Dyer said, the district informed the family that because of the contract obligations, the students had to attend Southampton. However, the family asked Tuckahoe several more times, and in December was allowed to present a case to the three-member School Board as an out-of-district family. Ultimately, the district opted to enroll the students for the rest of the year.
Mr. Dyer said one of the key factors in allowing the students to enter the school without the state money was that it would have very little impact on the classes, noting that no new classes had to be created, no new staff had to be hired, and the classes the students were added to were not at capacity, meaning other district students were not affected.
But Mr. Dyer admits that the issue of the education contract has been complicated. He said the district has been approached in the past by families looking to enroll at Tuckahoe, and that a portion of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, along Montauk Highway, does fall within the Tuckahoe School District, making certain families eligible to attend classes, if it were not for the contract with Southampton.
This week, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said there is no reason the Shinnecock students should not be allowed to attend Tuckahoe, adding that even though there is state money involved, the State Education Department should not be able to decide where students attend school.
“I’m in favor of the Shinnecock Nation being able to make that choice for itself as to where it wants to send its kids,” Mr. Thiele said. “Whether you live on the reservation or not, parents get to choose where they send their kids, and the Shinnecocks should not have any less of a right than anybody else to make those choices.”
A representative from the Shinnecock Indian Nation did not return calls seeking comment.
Mr. Dyer said the district hopes to schedule a meeting with the state to allow Tuckahoe to teach Shinnecock students in the future, although he is not sure how many families would be interested.
Southampton Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina said that as far as he knows, the state only authorizes tuition deals for Native American students for one district at a time, and that Southampton has not been notified of any meeting to try to renegotiate the contract to include Tuckahoe. However, the Southampton district has been in contract negotiations with the Shinnecock Nation for a new tuition agreement.
Until that meeting can be scheduled, Mr. Dyer said, it is unclear where the Shinnecock children will attend school in the fall.
“We are uncertain as to how many children would want to come here, but any child can apply for admittance as a non-resident, and we would have a responsibility when they do to collect the tuition rate,” he said. “For now, we are focused on providing a service to kids that were not feeling successful where they were, and we wanted to help them in that process.”