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Onondaga Nation Members Remove Children From School

Onondaga Nation parents, protesting the rejection of a Native school principal on what they consider spurious grounds, yanked their kids out of school.
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The Onondaga Nation has asked the New York State Department of Education to audit the LaFayette School District’s hiring of a non-Native principal over an equally qualified tribal educator after parents yanked their children out of school two weeks early in protest.

“The Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs has decided that our children’s last day of school for the 2016–2017 school year will be Friday, June 16, 2017,” the Onondaga Nation said in a statement. “This decision was reached with consultation with our Clan Mothers and community due to the lack of collaboration, respect and communication by Principal Diane Ellworth, Superintendent Laura Lavine, and the LaFayette Central School Board.”

The Nation, in central New York State, wants the culturally competent and qualified candidate Simone Thornton to replace outgoing principal Diane Ellworth. Thornton made it to the final three, but the state said it could not hire her without some required paperwork that she does not yet have. That paperwork is en route from the NYS Department of Education, according to Thornton. Onondaga Nation attorney Joseph Heath suggested that Thornton be named as interim principal pending the arrival of her paperwork, but instead the LaFayette District School Board chose Warren Smith, a non-Native educator who has never taught at the school. Smith declined the position on June 2.


“The LaFayette Central School District seems to think they have the ultimate authority over the school,” Onondaga Nation leader Tadodaho Sid Hill said in a statement. “This is our school, with our children, on our Nation. The ultimate decision on who will be principal here, who the teachers are in our schools, needs to come from the Onondaga Nation, to ensure our children are being taught well, in a culturally appropriate manner. To do otherwise just perpetuates generations of injustice.”

The Onondaga Nation school has a special agreement with New York State, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. In addition to the state curriculum, its students learn Onondaga language and culture, and get time off for ceremonies and other cultural events. The Onondaga are supposed to be consulted on educational issues, as well.

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“The district has not been compliant with meeting mandates that require them to regularly meet and consult with the Nation, particularly in regards to the budget,” Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath told ICMN. “There is a portion of the budget that is entitled ‘supplemental budget’ that is set aside for Native kids. The district has been submitting these for years and not consulting the Nation.”

The school board did not return phone calls from Indian Country Media Network requesting comment.

Lavine, who is also running for mayor, will be leaving the superintendent’s position.

“Per the Great Law and using a Good Mind, we have tried to engage in respectful dialogue,” Heath said.“We are hoping the incoming superintendent will be more respectful to the Nation.”

Thornton grew up on the Onondaga Nation, attended the school and has taught there for 20 years. The Nation feels she is the most culturally competent and qualified for the position.

To emphasize that point, in a sign of solidarity and strength, the Onondaga Nation Clan Mothers, leaders and parents removed their children from the school on June 16, two weeks ahead of schedule. By noon of June 16, only five children out of more than 130 remained in the school.

“Experience with our school, our language, our culture, and our community is far more valuable experience for being a good principal of our school than a few years’ experience as an administrator of an affluent suburban school,” said Awheñheeyoh Powless, the parent of a kindergartner at the Onondaga school. “Simone’s experience is the most valuable there is; the kind it takes being part of a community your whole life to know.”