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GAO report questions spending at Bureau of Indian Education

Poor conditions on the road to the American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo from American Horse School / GAO

Stronger oversight is needed within the Bureau of Indian Education used to prevent misspending and misuse of federal funds, the Government Accountability Office said in a report on Thursday.

BIE schools received about $830 million in fiscal year 2014, the report said. As of July, some 24 schools had already misspent $13.8 million, according to the GAO.

"BIE’s processes for oversight do not adequately ensure that funds are spent appropriately," the report said. "BIE lacks written procedures for how and when staff should monitor school spending and does not use a risk-based approach to prioritize how it should use its limited resources for oversight."

"Meanwhile, some schools have serious financial problems," it continued.

In March, for example, an internal audit showed that one school lost $1.2 million in federal funds. The Interior Department blamed it on "computer hackers" who apparently transferred the money to an off-shore account, the report said.

The school -- identified by the Associated Press as the Rock Point Community School on the Navajo Nation -- subsequently recovered $500,000 but the report does not explain how that happened. Yet another audit showed that Red Rock accumulated $6 million in unspent federal funds

"As of June 2014, BIE had not yet determined how the tribe accrued that much in unspent federal funds," the GAO said. Some schools accumulate the funds without using the money for their intended purpose, according to the report.

The Obama administration is restructuring the BIE as part of its Blueprint for Reform. The goal is to improve student achievement and give more control of the school system to tribes.

But the GAO warned that the reform plan does not include concrete plans to address oversight of school expenditures. It also may not affect the Navajo Nation, whose administrators work differently than those in other parts of Indian Country.

The misspending of federal funds is likely to draw attention on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been reluctant to put more money into the BIE. More specifically, they have provided little to no money for new school construction.

According to the Bronner report, the BIE needs $1.3 billion to replace or fix problems at the 68 highest-risk schools. Another $967 million is needed to reduce the existing repair and maintenance backlog.

“I think everyone agrees that our children deserve better, but these are tough budget times and it’s difficult,” BIE Director Charles Roessel told The New York Times. “It’s a priority for us.”

The BIA used to maintain a school construction priority list that determined which projects were included in the budget request submitted to Congress. But the list hasn't been updated since 2004.

“It’s not like going to a school board,” added Don Yu, an Education Department adviser who is helping the BIE with the reform plan. “We have to go to senators and congressmen and ask them for this funding. Getting funding for new major infrastructure problems has been extremely challenging.”

The American Indian Education Study Group has called for a resumption of the funds.

Get the Story:
GAO: Oversight needed of Native American schools (AP 11/13)
Decades of Neglect Show Starkly as Indian Schools Cry Out for Repairs (The New York Times 11/14)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

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