Two Obama Cabinet members make visit to Passamaquoddy tribal school

The secretaries of education and the interior convened a study group last year to assess schools funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

By The Associated Press

PERRY – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took a firsthand look at a tribal school as they promoted President Obama’s goals for education reform.

The two members of Obama’s Cabinet on Monday visited the Beatrice Rafferty School, located on the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point reservation, which serves more than 100 students. They were joined by Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Monty Roessel, along with Pleasant Point Chief Clayton Cleaves and Principal Mike Chadwick.

The two secretaries convened a study group last year to assess issues within Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools, which are among the lowest-performing schools in the country.

Last month, the study group issued a Blueprint for Reform. Goals for the 183 elementary and secondary schools and dormitories that are part of the Bureau of Indian Education include high-speed Internet, additional training for teachers and greater spending flexibility for tribal schools when it comes to meeting education goals.

The Beatrice Rafferty School, which was built in the 1970s, is due for replacement with federal funds. The funding was announced by Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree earlier this year.

Audio & Video from White House Tribal Nations Conference


The White House Tribal Nations Conference began this morning at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell kicked off the session after an introduction by Jodi Gillette, the Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs at the White House. This is Jewell’s first Tribal Nations Conference since joining the Obama administration earlier this year.

Tribal leaders also heard from five more Cabinet secretaries. They were: Secretary Eric Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs; Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services; Secretary Anthony Foxx, Department of Transportation; Secretary Ernest Moniz, Department of Energy; and Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Justice, who was introduced by David Gipp, the president of the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota.

After the morning remarks, tribal leaders went into breakout sessions on a variety of topics. The sessions were not open to press.

The afternoon session will resume at 2pm with remarks from three more Cabinet secretaries, to be followed by a listening session of the new White House Council on Native American Affairs. President Barack Obama created the council by executive order in June.

Obama is expected to deliver final remarks at the conference around 3:30pm. The afternoon session will be webcast at

Video from the morning session can be viewed here

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New interior secretary lays out agenda for Native-American issues

By Suzanne Gamboa, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told a Senate panel Wednesday that “Indian education is embarrassing” as she laid out her priorities on issues affecting Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Jewell made her first appearance as Interior secretary before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees a school system for Native Americans.

Jewell said some $2 billion has been spent on American Indian schools over the past decade and that dozens of schools remain in poor condition. She also said across-the-board federal budget cuts have forced a $40 million reduction to Indian education spending.

“Indian education is embarrassing to you and to us,” Jewell said.

After the hearing, Jewell said she has not yet been on a tour of schools — she was sworn in April 12 — but has been told of the serious condition of some of them.

“When we have a number of schools identified as in poor condition, that’s not what we aspire to,” she said.

In written testimony, Jewell said the $2 billion in spending had reduced the number of schools from more than 120 to 63, but she stated that the “physical state of our schools remains a significant challenge.”

Jewell testified that 68 schools were in poor condition but later said the number in written testimony, 63, was accurate.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked about the state of school repairs in his opening remarks before Jewell testified. He said a school on a reservation in his state is “desperate, desperate” for replacement and deals regularly with leaky roofs, mold, rodent infestations and sewer problems.

“When the wind starts blowing at a certain rate, they have to leave the school because it doesn’t meet the safety standards. This can be when it’s 20 below zero in northern Minnesota. It puts the Indian education system to shame,” Franken said.

There is a $1.3 billion backlog on Indian school-construction projects, Franken said.

Even so, the president did not request new funding for rebuilding schools, “leaving thousands of Indian children to study in crumbling and even dangerous buildings. This is unacceptable,” Franken said.

Further pressed on the issue by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Jewell said her department cannot repair and replace schools without money. She said her agency has made what happens in the classroom and repairs, rather than new school construction, the spending priorities for 2014.

She said she raised the issue of seeking help from philanthropic organizations while in the car on the way to the hearing, but federal law may limit that idea.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made her first appearance before Congress on Tuesday


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made her first appearance before Congress on Tuesday.

Jewell told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Interior Department suffered an $881 million cut due the sequester of the federal budget. Employees are being furloughed and services are being reduced as a result.

“It’s just very, very difficult for us to carry out the mission in the way it’s expected,” Jewell testified.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is taking a hit, Jewell acknowledged. She said officials are trying to prioritize education, law enforcement and self-determination needs.

“There’s no question in Indian Country, we’ve got needs that far exceed the ability to meet them,” Jewell said.

“I know there’s not enough money to go around but we’re certainly working with tribes to do the best that we can,” she added.

Jewell took over the Interior Department on April 12. Her first appearance on Capitol Hill was expected to be before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee but the