$f c Students, staff and leaders of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe react positively after learning that the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Minnesota will be replaced as part of a new construction push in Indian Country. Photo: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe

Bureau of Indian Affairs inches forward with school construction

It's taken more than a decade but the Obama administration -- with some prodding and assistance from Congress -- has finally published a new school construction replacement list.

The 10 schools on the list are considered some of the most deficient in Indian Country. The institutions will now receive funds in the current fiscal year to start planning for entirely new campuses.

"Every one of these 10 schools that are on the list, we have funding to provide them for planning, to start the planning process for replacement, Larry Roberts, the acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at a hearing on April 6, the day after the list was released.

"And that will happen this year," Roberts added.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing on Indian Education Bills

The list hadn't been updated since 2004 so last week's announcement marks a significant bright spot for the Bureau of Indian Education. The agency has been under fire for a variety of scandals, including one that led to the demotion of its director just two weeks ago due to hiring improprieties, and has been facing pressure on Capitol Hill to replace, inspect and maintain crumbling schools.

But the new document is different than the ones published in the past. For example, it does not assign a priority order to any of the schools. As Congress appropriates funding for the replacement program, the projects deemed "shovel ready" will receive funds, according to the BIE.

The list also included all 10 of the finalists that delivered presentations at a public meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in February. The No Child Left Behind Act School Facilities and Construction Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, a panel of tribal and federal representatives created by the No Child Left Behind Act , was charged with recommending at least five schools, raising the possibility that not everyone was going to make the cut.

But accepting all 10 schools gives the new list a greater sense of inclusion. Seven of the 10 finalists are on the Navajo Nation so the replacement program won't be necessarily weighted toward one particular area of Indian Country.

The Quileute Tribal School in La Push, Washington. Photo from Quileute Tribal School

"I'm standing in front of you to tell you we have an absolute, yes, we are ready," Susan Devine, a project manager for the Quileute Tribe of Washington, said as she and other school representatives made the case to the committee, according to a transcript from the February 3 meeting.

"As I mentioned before, we have been working for many years to get to the point to stand before you today, and we are really excited to talk to you about how ready we are." Devine said.

The Quileute Tribal School indeed made the cut and is the only one on the list outside of the Southwest. Quileute leaders, including Chairman Chaz Woodruff, said they need a new campus to move students away from the real-life dangers of earthquakes, flooding and tsunamis.

"We need to move our most vulnerable population out of a vulnerable situation," Woodruff said, according to the transcript. "We need to move our tribal school out of harms way in order to preserve our culture, our tradition, and our heritage for generations to come, and we need your help to do that."

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited with students from Laguna Elementary School at Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico in December 2013. Photo from Twitter

The other non-Navajo schools on the list are the Blackwater Community School on the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona and the Laguna Elementary School in New Mexico.

The Navajo Nation represents such a large segment of the list because the BIE said the reservation is home to the largest number of worst condition schools. The finalists are located in Arizona and New Mexico: Chichiltah-Jones Ranch Community School, Crystal Boarding School, Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School, Greasewood Springs Community School, Lukachukai Community School, T’iis Nazbas Community School and Tonalea Redlake Elementary School.

“Many of our schools on the Navajo Nation were built years ago and many need to be renovated or replaced with new facilities,” President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said in a press release last week. “Our children deserve to be educated in facilities that are safe and conducive to learning. We need facilities that our students and their parents will be proud of. They deserve new buildings.”

Additionally, the BIA had good news for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. As part of a different program that was finally funded by Congress for the first time since 2011, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School will be replaced with an $11.9 million appropriation. The school is located in buildings that were never meant to house students, forcing them to deal with harsh temperatures and other unstable conditions.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairwoman Carri Jones discusses replacement plans for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School at a press conference in Cass Lake, Minnesota, on April 5, 2016. Photo from Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe

"Our kids will finally have a safe environment to learn and grow," Leech Lake Chairwoman Carri Jones said. "Years of hard work have paid off and I'm incredibly proud and excited there will soon be a new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School."

The BIA's renewed focus on school construction comes after the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, the panel that writes the funding bill for Indian programs, ordered the agency to come up with a new replacement list in the fiscal year 2015 omnibus appropriations package.

The subcommittee also provided funds to close out the final two schools from the old list. The Little Singer Community School and Cove Day School, both on the Navajo Nation, are receiving $25.3 million for new campuses.

"This is decades and decades and decades of neglect and failure of the federal government to live up to its obligations," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the panel, said at a March 16 hearing.

Committee members from both parties have advocated for school replacement, construction and maintenance funds.

Inspector General Reports:
Investigation of Improper Hiring at the Bureau of Indian Education (March 30, 2016)
Investigative Report of Brian Drapeaux (December 2, 2014)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities (March 10, 2016)
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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