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Education, job and money problems on Pine Ridge

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - It isn't enough that the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest counties in the nation, but now, the tribe is in deep financial trouble. It laid off 50 employees and the Head Start program has also terminated employees and closed some programs.

So far November has not been best for tribal officials on Pine Ridge who are caught in a bind over federal dollars and what they refer to as federal meddling in the Head Start program.

The tribe, for all practical purposes is broke. Overspending on programs has forced the tribe to lay off the employees at the worst time of year, tribal treasurer David Rabbit said.

In a special council session, the elected officials voted 13-0 to reduce elected officials' salaries by 20 percent and laid off 50 employees in order to save $400,000 by the first of the year.

Rabbit said the tribe had trouble meeting payroll. But cost overruns were attributed to the financial crunch by council members.

The past few years of financial difficulties prompted the BIA to place the tribe in a high-risk status, which means the tribe is reimbursed for program expenses and not advanced the money to run the programs.

On top of that, the federal authorities are concerned about expenses that were not allowed under the guidelines. Pending the outcome of negotiations with the government the Oglala Sioux Tribe could owe the federal government $15 million, or nothing at all.

To make matters worse, jobs on the reservation are scarce at best and winter is setting in on the region which means more expenses for fuel and holiday activities may also be in jeopardy.

A dozen people also marched to the tribal offices to protest the firing of people from the Head Start program.

This past summer 150 employees of Head Start lost jobs, terminated by the federal government. Former employees of Head Start met with Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele to air their grievances.

The federal bureau that operates Head Start wanted to contract the program out to private operators, but the tribe refused to agree. After 13 years of non-compliance the employees that did not meet the criteria of the bureau were fired.

The tribe spent $400,000 of its own money to keep the program running.

Protesters said the federal government did not understand and tried to impose its values on the Oglala people.

Upset at the way the federal bureau handled the situation, Steele told those gathered that he wanted to kick the program off the reservation.

The Head Start Bureau hired Laura Schad and three other people to administer the program with the cost of their salaries coming from Washington. The program is now in the process of hiring people, but the applicants must meet the educational criteria established by the bureau. So far 50 people have been hired.

The Oglala Sioux Council will continue to negotiate with the federal government over its financial crisis and the Head Start debacle. Tribal officials were unavailable to provide updates.