October 25, 2021

Wyden, Merkley Seek Review of Accounting and Student Achievement Progress at Chemawa Indian School

Oregon senators’ letter to Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department cites continued complaints of alleged financial mismanagement

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today asked the Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department to answer questions about the Chemawa Indian School’s accounting practices and update its 2015 review of the Salem school’s policies to determine whether progress has been made to increase students’ academic achievement.

Wyden and Merkley’s letter noted that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) released two reports in July 2015 on academic achievement and violence prevention policies at Chemawa, concluding then that the school “was not properly assessing the academic needs of its students,” and was “unable to effectively prioritize its resources to ensure the successful educational achievement of its student population.” That 2015 review, the senators wrote, determined the school had made significant progress on violence prevention policies since prior reviews in 2008 and 2014 but also that the school’s measures were merely “adequate” to prevent violence against both students and teachers at the school.

“In the six years that have passed since your office’s review, we have continued to receive complaints about alleged financial mismanagement at the school,” the senators wrote Interior Inspector General Mark Greenblatt. “These allegations have been difficult to evaluate due to the school’s opaque financial practices. Our offices have repeatedly asked school officials for basic financial data. To date, we have not received a satisfactory response to those requests. In response to questions from OPB, the Bureau of Indian Education acknowledged that there is oversight on all the expenditures of school budgets but not detailed financial audits.”

Wyden and Merkley wrote that those troubling findings about accounting at Chemawa appear consistent with findings from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which determined in 2013 that the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) lacks clear procedures for decision-making and that in turn resulted in BIE acting outside the scope of its authority and undermining school officials’ ability to assess student performance. The senators also said GAO further determined in a 2014 follow-up report that BIE doesn’t adequately monitor school expenditures using written procedures or a risk-based monitoring approach, contrary to federal internal control standards and that while BIE responded in 2018 with a new financial and program oversight policy, “our offices have continued to receive complaints about alleged misuse of financial resources at the school.”

“Our Congressional delegation has worked in good faith with school officials and BIE to obtain answers on how the school is addressing these issues,” Wyden and Merkley wrote. “However, after several years, we remain deeply concerned that we cannot receive satisfactory answers to the most basic questions related to the school’s accounting practices.”

Wyden and Merkley asked OIG to update its 2015 review of the school’s policies to determine whether and to what extent any progress has been made to increase academic achievement and to answer the following additional questions:

  1. According to BIE’s 2018 Strategic Direction, the Bureau has implemented a new financial and program oversight policy to identify high risk schools, conduct monitoring visits of and provide technical assistance to those high risk schools, and to conduct quarterly financial reviews of current school year financials for each school:
  • Has BIE implemented its new financial and program oversight policy?
  • Has BIE identified Chemawa as a high risk school that requires additional BIE monitoring?
  • For each fiscal year from 2018 to 2021, to what extent has BIE audited the Chemawa school’s annual budget or conducted quarterly financial reviews?
  • If no audits have been conducted, what financial oversight has BIE conducted? 

2. BIE has previously confirmed that Chemawa’s school board plays an important role in conducting financial oversight of the school’s administration. However, multiple former board members have complained that their attempts to conduct oversight were outright ignored by school staff. The school has also failed to answer basic questions about the board’s current composition and responsibilities and has not made school board meeting minute’s public for several years. BIE recently confirmed to Senator Wyden’s office that the Chemawa school board has two active board members and is in the process of making several replacement appointments but claimed it could not disclose the names of those individuals.[1]

  • Does Chemawa currently have a functioning school board?
  • What is its composition and what role does it play in conducting financial oversight of the school’s administration?

The entire letter is here.