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OPI works to help Heart Butte School

Posted at 9:32 AM, Jan 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-15 12:24:23-05

In the video above, Owen Skornik-Hayes reports on a community discussion to address the budgetary crisis in the Heart Butte School District.

(JANUARY 10, 2024) "I'm angry." That was the response following a Tuesday night vote to eliminate 30 staff positions in the Heart Butte School District.

Margaret Crawford, former Library Teacher's Aide, was one of the 30 employees laid off due to the misappropriation of funds withing District administration.

"I'm angry... We are the support staff, and we do a lot for this school..." Crawford expressed to the School Board during Public Comment.

It was a wave of emotions and the top concern were the students following the final decision. For the small community of Heart Butte, a population of over 600, these lay-offs pose challenges for the unemployed.

"This was our main employment to pay bills and to go work somewhere else, that means gas," said Crawford. "To say that it’s easy to go to a different area to work, it’s not as easy as people say."

USA Today Data analysis reports that the state of Montana has an unemployment rate of 2.9%. While Pondera County, sits above the state average at 3.1%. The more alarming number comes from the Department of Labor and Industry, the Blackfeet Reservation has one of the highest tribal community unemployment rates of 7.7%.

Before the decision, the Blackfeet Tribal Council was already working on solutions to combat a potential lay off.

"I was speaking with Garland Stiffarm and he has a whole list of jobs that are available right now within the Health Department in Browning. He wants to start pushing that out right away so those 30 employees, if they're eligible for those positions... Come in and apply." Patrick Armstrong, Treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council shared.

"I’m gonna wake up, bring my youngest son to school and go look for another job," said Joe Comes At Night, former Maintenance Supervisor in the district.

Heart Butte School votes to eliminate 30 positions

MTN asked the Chairman of the Board, Forrest Boss Calf Ribs, for comment on what the remainder of the week and school year would look like.

He declined to comment.

Crawford, who says the laid off support staff to teachers were vital resources to students. A simple smile and conversation could potentially save a student's life.

"We had three suicides in our community in the last year. Without the mental health aspect of it… It’s just going to cause sadness."

In a 2017 Blackfeet Community Health Assessment, the tribe reported that 8th grade students in Browning had the highest percentage of suicide ideations. 42% of those Browning 8th grade students reported to have suicidal thoughts, 39% had a suicide plan, and 33% had attempted suicide.

A gut-wrenching reality for a hardy community wanting the best for its children.

"You know, we’re not defeated. Stemming from our past and our history, and everything that we’ve had to overcome, we’ve learned, we’ve overcome, and we’ve proven to be resilient," added Armstrong. "Seek out help. Don't be too proud to to ask for help. There's always resources out there that are going to help you."

Principal and students react to Heart Butte school lay-offs

Office of Public Instruction, Superintendent, Elsie Arntzen (R-MT) attended Tuesday night's school board meeting. She extended an olive branch to the school board ahead of the motion, that her office would help find additional funding.

"We’re here to make sure that the dollars that flow to Heart Butte or any public school that there isn’t any challenge or kink in the hose with that money. That we can get that dollar to the school, and then that local accountability, is with the elected trustees. Let’s put trust back into these trustees." Arntzen said.

The offer didn't persuade the Heart Butte School Board to table the vote for a later date. Public Comment held questions as the why the school board wouldn't table the vote until after it heard the solutions offered by OPI.

Come Wednesday morning, the halls of Heart Butte School will feel different. The difficult and reluctant decision of the Trustees, is what was felt, in the best interest to keep the doors open. For some laid off, keeping the school open is the top priority.

"If all of us getting laid off keeps the doors open longer, I guess that’s what it is." Joe Comes At Night added.

If you are looking for employment resources within the Blackfeet Reservation, call the 406-338-3513 or visit the website.

For contact information to obtain mental health services on the Blackfeet Reservation, click here.

If you or someone you know is having the thought of suicide, dial 988 for an anonymous crisis line.