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School construction fared poorly on White House test

During his two campaigns, George W. Bush and his supporters often cited his pledge to repair crumbling Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. They pointed out that he requested, and obtained, more than $1 billion to address the long-standing problem.

But as the White House began work on the fiscal year 2006 budget, the first since Bush's re-election, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ran into a problem. Despite funding appropriated for 34 school replacement projects, officials saw that only nine have been completed since 2001. Not a great track record for a results-oriented president.

So it came as little surprise that the Bush administration slashed the Indian School Construction budget by nearly $90 million last week. The request of $174 million means only two projects will be funded next year as the BIA catches up on the mini-backlog generated by the influx of funding.

"The schools aren't getting built as quickly so if we back off a little bit, [we can] give them a little more time to get built,"Debbie Clark, the BIA's chief financial officer, said last week at the budget announcement.

In its budget documents, the Interior Department presented an upbeat portrait of the situation. "Significant progress has been made," the department stated, pointing to figures projecting that 65 percent of schools will be in fair or good condition by the end of 2006.

A harsher assessment came from OMB, which gave school construction a "Results Not Demonstrated" rating. The program suffers from poor management and hasn't shown results, according to this year's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), an initiative that Bush brought to the White House four years ago.

In its documents, OMB pins the poor showing largely on tribes. "Once the project is funded, the tribes have a great deal of latitude on the project, including the choice to plan, design and construct the project," the PART summary states. "BIA has very little flexibility to redirect projects as priorities change, or to compel a tribe to complete a project within a certain timeframe."

In hopes of addressing the "flaw," the Bush administration now has the power to take over a school replacement project if construction doesn't start within 18 months of appropriation. The language was inserted into the Interior Department's appropriations bill without tribal consultation.

"We have several [school projects] in that situation," Clark acknowledged. "I think we want to do everything possible to not be in a situation where we have to take the school back. We want to work with the tribes to get the schools built."

The agency is taking a number of steps to address its PART score, officials said. Former assistant secretary Dave Anderson, who resigned last week, said the BIA has hired a former official from the city of Los Angeles who oversaw school construction there.

"They have an 18-month build time compared to three years for us," Anderson said.

Anderson and Clark also said the BIA will be trying to help tribes and school boards with the design process, typically the biggest hurdle to project completion. The BIA will offer "prototype" of a school that can be modified to fit a community's needs.

"In the past, one of the hangups has been tribes having building designs that took a long time. The school board couldn't decideon a design, the tribe couldn't decide on a design," Anderson said. "What we're going to do, is we're going to have several designs that we know work and we're just going to say, 'If you want to be in the business of getting a school built, here's a design.' And we're ready to go."

According to Interior, the goal by 2008 is to have all school replacement projects completed within four years. That would include planning, design and construction.

Of the 25 schools still in the works, Interior estimates that 11 will be completed in 2005 and 2006. That leaves 14 other projects funded since 2001 unfinished.

The BIA funds replacement projects based on a priority construction list. The most recent list, updated in February 2004, contains 14 schools. The list prior to that, published in January 2003, contains 12 schools.

Budget Documents:
DOI Budget in Brief | Tribal Communities | Bureau of Indian Affairs | DOI Budget [from White House] | PART Scores

Relevant Links:
National Indian Education Association -
Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA -