Parents and students overflowed the Osage Nation congressional chambers Wednesday at a highly anticipated education meeting to hear the status of the Osage Nation Higher Education scholarships.
Hepsi Barnett, Executive Branch Chief of Staff, told attendees that two separate applications for room and board, and one for supplies, will be available next week for those students waiting on the full amount of their scholarships. If the applications are not filled out and sent back it is possible that students will not receive the remainder of their money, she said.
“The criteria for room and board is being revised and that is at the advice from the attorney we have been consulting,” Barnett said. “We are making every effort to rectify the situation and get the disbursements made.”
The controversy erupted last week when students began contacting Congress with the news that they weren’t receiving the full $3,500 scholarship from the Nation as promised. Letters of intent had already been sent to their schools and without notification from the education department, only their tuition and books were paid for, leaving nothing for room and board or supplies. In the past, students attending lower-cost schools received what was left over after their tuition and books were paid for, leaving some with more than $2,000 in left over monies. This has affected approximately 200 students.
Congresswoman Shannon Edwards, an education committee member, said the committee repeatedly asked the education department during the Spring Hun-Kah session to come up with criteria for room and board, and supplies, for the students and that the controversy never would have happened if that would have been achieved.
“Somehow, somewhere, there has been a misrepresentation that the [scholarship] money was going to go to the students,” Edwards said. “There are three schools where the tuition and fees is zero for Native American students.”
“Now I’m hearing that if a student has no tuition, and room and board is $215, then we’re giving them $3,500 . . . for what? I’m confused,” Edwards said.
Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw said in return, “If you’re confused then imagine how our students are feeling.” Edwards agreed and Supernaw continued by saying, “If students were told they were getting $3,500, and they were relying on that money, then we have an obligation to pay it.”
The other concern was that since room and board is a taxable income, students might get caught with some income taxes, but parents at the meeting refuted this, waving Internal Revenue Service publications and notes they had made for the meeting.
“Is there discrimination on where you attend school?” said Wendy Ponca whose son attends Haskell Indian Nations University where tuition costs $215. “Because one of my son’s has chosen to go to Haskell, he can’t get the full amount?”
“Who cares if we have to pay taxes on a mere $3,500. So what, pay it!” Ponca said.
Edwards made a motion for a resolution that all students waiting for the remainder of the money be paid in full immediately, without having to fill out the applications and send them in. However, a resolution is a recommendation and holds no legal binding. The education department, or the Executive Branch, does not have to act on the resolution.
The resolution will be introduced Friday morning during the congressional session, according to Congressman Doug Revard, education committee chair.
Education Director, Robert Hyatt, said in the meeting that a letter was sent late Friday to those students waiting on the remainder of the money. The letter explains the situation to the students and what steps they need to take. He said the department also sent letters to their schools explaining the money has been delayed and asks the schools to extend their letters of intent to Oct. 10, and to wave any late fees or penalties.
"I’ve received no letter that was sent on [Sept. 4] and [my daughter’s] school has received no letter,” said Penny Bradford, whose daughter attends a small college. “She has until next week for her account to be paid in full or else I have to go down there and pack her up.”
Three other parents at the meeting said that their children have not received a letter from the Nation and neither has their school. Barnett said that since the letters were sent out late Friday, and due to the holiday, the students and schools should be receiving those letters today or tomorrow.
Barnett also told the committee that legal implications were found concerning tax liability for the tribe and that the Executive Branch would be preparing a report with the help of an attorney to present to the Congress in an executive session at a future date.
“We’re trying to look out for the student’s best interest,” Barnett said. “We expect no delays in the disbursement of money.”