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Indian school construction put back on track with latest budget

Students at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Minnesota. Photo from Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

Construction of new schools in Indian Country is back on track after more than a decade of neglect and mixed signals.

The fiscal year 2016 budget unveiled by President Barack Obama on Monday provides $25.3 million for the Little Singer Community School and Cove Day School, both on the Navajo Nation. The two schools have been waiting for replacement facilities since 2004, the last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs published a school construction priority list.

The Bush administration never updated the list, citing concerns about the performance of the replacement school construction program. The Obama administration at one point said it was going to come up with a new list but nothing panned out.

At the same time, key members of Congress from both parties weren't willing to rock the boat. That changed in December, however, with the enactment of a massive $1.1 trillion appropriations measure that ordered the BIA to take action.

"The bureau is directed to publish a new list in time for the fiscal year 2016 funding cycle," lawmakers wrote in a report that accompanied the funding bill.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: FY2016 Budget Preview Conference Call with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

The Obama administration has not announced how it will update the list -- in the past, the process involved some form of tribal consultation. But in a conference call last week with reporters, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she was committed to moving forward.

"Basically it would effectively finish out the 2004 priority school list -- that's more than 10 years old at this point -- but it also would enable us to initiate planning for the highest priority schools," Jewell said of the money being requested in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

Jewell has visited Bureau of Indian Education schools in Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota and Mississippi since joining the administration in April 2013. She's seen first hand the types of conditions that Indian children face every day -- crumbling buildings, unsafe dormitories and inadequate structures -- and she believes Congress wants to change the situation too.

"I'm quite optimistic that we will get support for this budget," Jewell said, citing bipartisan support on the matter.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which drafted the language about the priority list in the 2015 appropriations measure. He said he was eager to support the 2016 funding request for school construction.

"Throughout President Obama’s tenure, Native American issues have proven to be a source of bipartisan cooperation, particularly on the House Appropriations Committee," said Cole, the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. "As a proud Native American, I appreciate the president's proposal to make significant new investments in tribal education and do so in ways that enhance tribal governments. In the days ahead, as my colleagues in the House and Senate seek to find common ground with the administration, I remain hopeful that we can make significant progress in Indian country during this session of Congress."

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the Democratic co-chair of the caucus, also sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is the top Democrat on the subcommittee that handles the Interior Department budget. She has been pushing the administration to come up with funds for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation.

"In Minnesota, children from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who attend the Bug O Nay Ge Shig School will still face harsh February days in a converted pole barn that was only ever intended to be a temporary solution," McCollum said in a press release. But there is reason to be hopeful that will not be reality for those children for much longer. President Obama and Secretary Jewell have taken a significant action to set us on a path towards ensuring that all children in Indian Country have access to a safe place to learn.”

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, noted that the agency did not sacrifice other programs in order to restart the school construction process. Overall, Obama has requested $2.9 billion for the agency, or $323.5 million above the 2015 level.

"We have not made significant compromises in the Indian affairs budget to accommodate this," Washburn said on the conference call last week. "This is a plus for us."

Both Jewell and Washburn credited Obama, who visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota last June, with making Indian children a priority. Overall the BIE will see about $1 billion in the new budget, an increase of more than $93 million from the 2015 level.

Despite the increase of funds in the 2016 request, the BIA is far away from making a big dent in the conditions at Indian schools across the nation. According to the Bronner report, the agency needs $1.3 billion to replace or fix problems at the 68 highest-risk schools and another $967 million to reduce the existing repair and maintenance backlog.

"We can and must do better for Indian Country," Jewell said.

FY2016 Budget Documents:
Indian Affairs | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Fact Sheet | Budget In Brief

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