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Why is NY’s Onondaga Nation School Crumbling?

New York State has underfunded the Indigenous school in central New York. Here’s why I’m part of the movement to change the status quo.

Onondaga Nation exit sign
Noahedits / Wikimedia Commons
By: Cassandra “Bean” Minerd Strategist, Racial Justice Center

As a Native woman, I embrace the rich cultural heritage of my people, while also confronting generations of trauma, discrimination, and marginalization.

For me, doing Indigenous Justice work means using my perspectives, experiences, and knowledge to advocate for meaningful change within my community and beyond. It means challenging oppressive systems and structures while uplifting the voices and needs of Indigenous peoples. This work is about resilience, strength, and a deep connection to the land and traditions that have sustained Indigenous peoples for centuries. It is a constant balancing act of honoring the past while also fighting for a more just and equitable future.

I am a proud Haudenosaunee woman from the Onondaga Nation and I am glad to lead the Indigenous Justice work for the NYCLU’s Racial Justice Center. One of our first priorities is tackling the flawed funding structure that has led to the underfunding of the Onondaga Nation School (ONS). The school sits on the Onondaga Nation, less than five miles outside Syracuse’s city limits. Many members of my family attend, have attended, or teach at ONS, making this initiative especially important to me.

The school currently serves 122 Native American students in pre-K through 8th grade. And even though it was originally constructed back in the 1930s, ONS has seen only one significant capital improvement project in the last 80 years.

When you walk through the doors of ONS, the decades of neglect from the state may not be immediately clear. Architects redesigned the school alongside residents of the Onondaga Nation with the intention of highlighting the school’s cultural significance and to honor the Haudenosaunee people. This makes it especially disheartening that the school’s architectural design — which is so beautifully informed by Haudenosaunee culture — is overshadowed by the school’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Behind the beautiful façade, parts of the roof leak, and some bricks on the walls are crumbling. The heating, cooling and plumbing systems barely work, and the doors themselves can’t be locked. The school has limited classroom availability, often forcing teachers to share space by teaching multiple subjects to different students at the same time in the same room. We’ve also heard reports that space limitations force children with individualized needs to receive services like speech therapy in school hallways.

The Flawed Funding Mechanism at the Heart of the Problem

The Onondaga Nation has had a treaty with the U.S. since the country’s earliest days of nationhood that requires the state to provide an equal education to Indigenous students living on what’s known as sovereign land. Unfortunately, the current funding structure fails to achieve that mandate. Critically, ONS and the other Indigenous schools in New York do not receive funding in the same way as other public schools. They have a different set of rules, barriers, and hurdles to overcome.

While nearly every school in New York State is funded through their school district, the three schools on Indigenous Nations are barred from this practice. These schools must make a direct plea to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) for their funding. Unlike every other public school, there is no funding formula that guarantees money for capital improvements.

ONS was built on the U.S. Government’s promise to provide Indigenous students with an equal education. The state of New York has broken this promise and now lawmakers must make amends.

Schools on sovereign land are also not allowed to choose their own contractors like other school districts. They must rely on NYSED to contract out any capital improvements. This means a longer and delayed process, often times tripling the time it takes to make repairs. For example, ONS has put in a request for general repairs to the entryway doors for over 15 years. These doors cannot latch properly or close.

The State failed to act for over 15 years and is only now saying that it will fix the doors by this summer. Not being able to lock the doors puts the safety of students – who are as young as 5 – at risk, while also making summers hotter and winters colder. ONS must repeat this time-consuming process for both minor and major repairs over and over for every building improvement.

NYSED often views any funding given to Nation schools as “extra money” after general public schools are funded. This is because all other public schools receive some amount of annual capital improvement funding. General public schools often battle to get adequate funding, while schools on sovereign land battle to get any funding.

This funding process and the red tape that comes with it results in far less funding going to ONS and other Indigenous schools compared to other public schools. As Jeremy Belfield, the Lafayette Public Schools Superintendent whose district covers ONS,  explained, “our data shows that for every $5 spent to improve other school facilities in our district, the state only spent $1 on improving our Nation schools.”

The blatant neglect of Indigenous schools prompted Governor Hochul, in 2022, to allocate a significant amount of funding to the three Indigenous schools across New York. While this contribution was substantial, it wasn’t nearly enough to address the decades-long shortfall. It also simply puts a band-aid on the larger systemic funding structure. Before the Governor chose to provide this funding, ONS hadn’t seen a dollar for capital improvements in seven years.

While ONS continues to be neglected by the state, the other elementary school in the same district — which serves students who are 70 percent white — has many more resources. Grimshaw Elementary boasts state-of-the-art facilities; a science, technology, engineering, art and math program; and buildings with central air and bullet-resistant windows. Meanwhile, the faculty at ONS can’t even lock the school’s doors.

The New York legislature should provide immediate funding to fix the broken doors, roof, walls, and heating and cooling systems. They should also allocate funds to expand the number of classrooms at the school. But this should only be the first step.

The long-term fix must give Indigenous Nation schools access to annual capital funds through their districts, just like any other public school in New York. Indigenous communities have been calling on New York State to make this happen for decades.

ONS was built on the U.S. Government’s promise to provide Indigenous students with an equal education. The state of New York has broken this promise and now lawmakers must make amends.

Lanessa Owens-Chaplin contributed to this piece.

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