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House subcommittee looks at poor conditions at Indian schools

The roof at a Bureau of Indian Education school has sprung multiple leaks after being installed in 2010 at a cost of $3.5 million. Efforts to fix the problem have gone nowhere. Photo from Government Accountability Office

The House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education looked at the dismal condition of Indian schools at a hearing on Wednesday.

No one from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Bureau of Indian Education testified at the hearing. But lawmakers were told that the agency's structure is so convoluted that administrators in the field don't know who to call to get anything fixed.

"It's clearly appalling," said Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana), the chairman of the subcommittee.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education April 22 2015

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.

The school replacement process, however, ground to a halt during the Bush administration due to concerns about financial management practices at the agency. The construction priority list hasn't been updated since 2004.

Congress has since directed the BIE to restart the process and the fiscal year 2016 budget proposed by President Barack Obama requests $25.3 million to finish the last two schools on the 2004 list. Management and organizational issues, however, persist. and were outlined by the Government Accountability Office in testimony to the subcommittee.

A high-voltage electrical panel was installed next to a dishwater at a Bureau of Indian Education school -- a clear safety hazard. The problem was fixed after the Government Accountability asked about it last October. Photo from GAO

"At one school we visited, a BIE school facility manager submitted a request in February 2014 to replace a water heater so that students and staff would have hot water in the elementary school. However, the school did not designate this repair as an emergency," the GAO said in its written testimony. "Therefore, BIA facility officials told us that they were not aware of this request until we brought it to their attention during our site visit in December 2014."

"Even after we did so, it took BIE and BIA officials over a month to approve the purchase of a new water heater, which cost about $7,500," the testimony continued. "As a result, students and staff at the elementary school went without hot water for about a year."

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, an idea embraced by lawmakers on the subcommittee.

YouTube: Hearing on Examining the Challenges Facing Native American Schools

The hearing lasted about an hour and 26 minutes. Audio can be found on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud -- there are two slight dropouts during the question and answer session that are also present in the archived video.

Get the Story:
Federally-run Indian schools are in rough shape because of a broken bureaucracy (The Washington Post 4/24)
After hearing on poor state of Indian schools, Rep. John Kline doesn't know whether to laugh or cry (The Minneapolis Star Tribune 4/23)

Committee Notice:
Examining the Challenges Facing Native American Schools (April 22, 2015)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Further Actions on GAO Recommendations Needed to Address Systemic Management Challenges with Indian Education (April 22, 2015)
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

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