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An alarming report: Unverified test scores, big cash deficit at Circle of Life Academy threatened to shut down the school

The Circle of Life Academy was in the red by $1.3 million, according to a White Earth Nation statement, which meant the tribe had to transfer funds to keep it open. (file photo)

The K-12 Circle of Life Academy in White Earth faces unverified test scores and a $1.1 million budget deficit that could have forced the school to close, if not for a $1.3 million cash infusion from the tribal general fund, according to a news release from the White Earth Tribal Council.

Interim Circle of Life Academy Superintendent Jenna Leadbetter informed the Tribal Council about the problems at the school. Brent Gish, who has extensive experience in Indian education, is helping Leadbetter sort through the school's financial affairs.

Since an inquiry started, several staff members responsible for these issues have resigned.

The issues occurred under the tenure of former Circle of Life Academy Superintendent Ricky White, who was hired in 2015 to help turn the school around, and who resigned Nov. 30. He could not be reached for comment.

The school is accused of reporting inflated student test scores.

For example, the official 2017-1018 mid-year-school-wide Northwest Evaluation Association assessment data for reading was at 21 percent advanced/proficient and 24 percent advanced/proficient for math.

But those scores were reported to the Bureau of Indian Education as 40 percent and 43 percent, a difference of 19 and 17 percentage points. "The incorrect and unverified test scores resulted in improved evaluations for teachers and non-teaching staff that led to pay increases," the tribal council said in the news release.

"Due to these pay increases, bonuses, school activities and for other unknown reasons, the school has a $1.1 million deficit that could force the K-12 school to shut down this spring. However, at the direct request of Secretary-Treasurer Alan Roy, the RBC is donating $1.3 million to the school to keep it open," the news release said.

The Northwest Evaluation Association assessment data charts five different achievement levels for students: Advanced, proficient, average, low average and low.

According to meetings from a January Tribal Council meeting, verified school-wide achievement data from the 2015-2016 school year show scores for reading at 25 percent advanced/proficient and 19 percent advanced/proficient for math.

In the 2016-2017 school year, reading scores were at 18 percent advanced/proficient and 15 percent advanced/proficient for math.

In the 2017-2018 school year, reading scores were at 21 percent advanced/proficient and 25 percent advanced/proficient for math.

In the 2018-2019 school year, reading scores were at 17 percent advanced/proficient and 9 percent advanced/proficient for math.

"As a nation, we will pay any price to protect our children," said White Earth Chairman Terry Tibbetts. "Our nation has an obligation to its families to never let those who would manipulate education command the future course of life for our children."

The news was announced at the public White Earth Reservation Quarterly Council meeting March 7 at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

Also at the meeting, the Other Government Project presented its Initial Findings and Recommendations Report concerning Star Lake and Bagley Casino projects.

OGP attorney Michael Garbow of Bemidji presented a detailed report that, according to the news release, demonstrated a breakdown in the oversight and management of tribal funds that resulted in millions of dollars being expended on purchases and payments that resulted in little or no benefit to the White Earth Band membership.

Part of that, of course, is because the Star Lake project was killed after land purchases were made and major electrical infrastructure was built.

The Bagley casino is profitable, but the Other Government Project alleges that greatly inflated prices were paid to obtain land at both Bagley and Star Lake.

"In order to avoid future situations like Star Lake and Bagley Casino projects," the OGP made the following recommendations:

• Pass a resolution separating the White Earth Reservation Business Committee (Tribal Council) from the Gaming Commission. This allows for more transparency and checks and balances for expenditures.

• Pass a resolution requiring any expenditures over a certain amount to be shared with Band membership for their input and approval.

• Pass a resolution forming a Commission regarding future financial ventures that has a mixture of community members and a neutral financial expert in order to provide guidance to the RBC.

• Turn all OGP information and findings over to the FBI and the state's attorney general to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

• Further recommendations to be made once the audits are completed on the other matters to which the OGP has been assigned to gather information and provide reports.

Former White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason criticized the work of the Other Government Project. "These are untrue and unfounded allegations and eventually the entire story will come out," she said in a brief interview. Bill Marsh, former White Earth gaming director, called this newspaper and left a message, but since then has not returned several calls left on his voicemail.