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School caught in Oneida Nation dispute

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ONEIDA, N.Y. - Resisting alleged pressure from the Oneida Indian Nation to fire an American Indian woman working as a school tutor, the Stockbridge Valley School District is foregoing a $120,000 "Silver Covenant" grant from the Oneidas and scrambling to make up the shortfall in its budget.

Some townspeople at a recent school board meeting said they would rather pay additional taxes than be "held hostage" by the donation.

The Oneida Nation had threatened to withhold the Covenant money from the school district if it refused to fire Monica Antone-Watson, a Native working as tutor to the school district's American Indian students. The district includes the Oneida Nation homeland. Ten percent of its students are Native, the highest proportion in the region.

According to press reports, the Oneida Nation complained that she was discussing internal Nation politics with the students. The school board responded that it had investigated the complaints, which apparently it had received for the better part of the year, and decided they were unfounded. The school said that although Antone-Watson taught several courses on Indian history and culture, her primary role was as a tutor and mentor.

The Oneida Nation has been riven by a chronic dispute, pitting Nation leadership including Representative Ray Halbritter, CEO of the Nation's highly successful Turning Stone Casino Resort and Sav-On chain of gas stations and convenience stores against his aunt Maisie Shenandoah and her family. Shenandoah and her daughters accuse the Nation government of devising a housing safety ordinance to force their eviction from Territory Road in Oneida, the core of the Nation's reservation land. While the Shenandoah's have lost consecutively in Oneida Nation Court and in U.S. District Court, the evictions have currently been stayed pending appeals. Children from Territory Road and surrounding areas attend the Stockbridge Valley schools.

The Oneida Nation makes voluntary "Silver Covenant" grants to several school districts and local governments that surround its lands. It calls these donations a goodwill gesture in place of local property taxes, which cannot be collected on any land it has reacquired in its original reservation area. At least one locality has refused the donation, because of a court fight over the tax issue, which is now on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Stockbridge Valley school situation is the first case in public view in which the Oneida Nation has demanded an institutional action in return for its donation. Some residents expressed surprise at the school board meeting that the dispute had gone on for so long behind the scenes. But sentiment seemed strongly against compliance with the demands.

"We don't intend to budge from our position," School Board President Michael Oot said, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

The school budget was especially vulnerable to the disruption because it had committed the donation to current expenses in an effort to reduce local tax burdens. The Jan. 13 school board meeting discussed alternatives for making up the shortfall, such as taking the money from the unappropriated reserve fund or making program and personnel cuts.

Several residents criticized the board for the way it handled the money. According to the Post-Standard, Rick Papa said, "If you don't know you're going to get this money, don't put it in the budget. It's troubling that our children's education is being held hostage, in a way, and our board is being blackmailed."

The Oneida Daily Dispatch quoted Papa as saying, "If there was a problem with the Nation and the money, we, the community, should have been told. Essentially, this has been hanging over our heads for the past three superintendents. It didn't just come up now, it's been there and you didn't let us know. You had a responsibility to let us know."

According to that report, School Superintendent Randolph Richards answered that the District had commissioned an outside audit of the program and investigated the claims three separate times. "The heat never increased until this summer," he was quoted as saying.

Two of the Shenandoah daughters, Diane and Vicky, who are members of the school's Native American parent committee, used the forum to criticize the Oneida Nation leadership.

"There is an extreme difference between the Oneida Nation Corp. and the Oneida people," said Diane Shenandoah, according to the Post-Standard. "I apologize to your community and to all our children that their education is being put on the line.

"It's a bully tactic."

Mark Emery, spokesman for the Oneida Nation, said it was not making any comment. Repeated phone calls to Stockbridge Valley school officials were not returned.