The Bureau of Indian Affairs announced April 5 that 11 BIE schools are eligible for replacement, but the only one that can expect construction funding this year is the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School, which will get $12 million in federal funds.
BIA Acting Secretary Lawrence Roberts told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on April 6 that the other 10 schools would receive money for planning this year, but Congress has yet to approve construction funding for any of them.
The 10 schools on the 2016 priority list were selected by a committee established under the No Child Left Behind Act from among the 78 that were eligible to be considered for replacement. Of those, 53 submitted applications to the School Facilities & Construction Negotiated Rulemaking Committee. The Bureau of Indian Education funds 183 elementary and secondary day and boarding schools on 64 reservations.
To be selected, schools had to show that they were shovel-ready with land leases and permits, EPA clearances, geological and archaeological surveys, and architectural and engineering plans, among other documents, in place so they could begin construction within 18 months of receiving funding. Several schools had applied before and have had their documentation in place for 10 years and more.
The schools selected are in such deplorable condition, and have been for so long, that they should have been replaced decades ago. Building walls are cracked, indicating severe structural deficiencies, water and sewer systems have corroded pipes and constant leaks, heating systems are old, unreliable, and often have only one temperature setting, which can leave the children shivering or put them in an unhealthy environment with temperatures up to 100 degrees, asbestos is everywhere, windows are single pane and do not close properly, fire alarms and sprinklers, if they exist, do not work. Often the schools are in such bad shape that repairing them would cost more than replacing them. A few examples:
The T’iis Nazbas Community School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, was built in 1965 to accommodate 500 to 1,000 students. Today150 kindergarten through grade 8 students are enrolled; 68 live on campus. The school has experienced several fires and an explosion in the kitchen. The fire alarm and fire suppression equipment are inadequate and the fire truck was removed in 2014 because the garage is inadequate. There are insufficient security cameras and spotty ADA compliance.
The residential building needs a new HVAC system; sometimes the school has to send students home because there is no heat. Herman Farley, a school board member, explained why the residential program at T’iis Nazbas is so important, “A lot of our community members, students and grandkids, like to go to a bureau school because of the residential program the bureau holds. And with the home living setting back in their own home, they rather have the upbringing in the dormitory life that will give them determination of staff discipline and more of the disciplinary portion of growing up.”
The Gila River Indian Community’s Blackwater Community School has made AYP (a measure of academic achievement under NCLB) since 2002 despite being so overcrowded it needs an additional 31,407 square feet of space to get students out of the 10 portable classrooms where most of them are now taught. “If there is one child who needs services from the nurse’s office, the other students have to wait outside the building because there is hardly any space,” said Principal Jagdish Sharma, who presented at a committee hearing for the eligible schools in Albuquerque on February 2.
The school also lacks physical education facilities, a critical loss in a community with extremely high rates of diabetes and obesity. The children cannot play outside when during three months of the school year temperatures can exceed 105 degrees.
The Crystal Boarding School in the remote Chuska Mountains of New Mexico was built in 1935. The school serves 120 to 140 students in grades K-8. Severe overcrowding, a boiler that is beyond repair, lead pipes, asbestos and no preventive maintenance program because all of the available funds go for on-the-spot repairs are among its problems.
The residential program meets only half the needs in the area since one dormitory had to be shut down. “We have one room with bunk beds for all our kids in there, all in one room, the boys, and then the girls are in the other wing. There is no privacy. And the bathrooms are just as bad, in the showers there is no privacy at all,” Principal Alberto Castruita said. The residential program is critical because the school is located at 8,000 feet elevation. “We have three bus routes. One bus goes 90 miles round trip every day. Another one goes 80 miles, and then the one that goes the longest mileage is 110 miles because we have kids all the way up here in White Clay, and we have kids down here in Ft. Defiance, so we have to bus them all over the place,” said Castruita. When the temperature falls below 0, the diesel fuel in the buses starts to gel and the school has to close.
Another serious concern—and this was expressed by several presenters—is that school security is wholly inadequate for today’s conditions. This school is “wide open,” with no fencing and no surveillance cameras.
In LaPush, Washington, the Quileute Tribal School, a K-12 boarding school, serves 60 kids from the Quileute, Hoh, Makah, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Ponca, Blackfeet, Quinault, Shoshone Bannock, Yakima, and many other tribes. They are all in harm’s way every day. Nine of the 10 buildings on campus are in state or federally identified flood/tsunami zones. The students are housed in five portable buildings just a few feet above sea level less than 300 feet from the ocean. The school, like most on this list, have broadband so inadequate that they cannot administer state-required computer-assisted achievement tests.
In 1889, an executive order signed by President Benjamin Harrison left the Quileute with a one-square-mile reservation surrounded by the Olympic National Park on one side and the Quillayute River and the Pacific Ocean on the other. “We get 12 feet of rain per year, an average of 144 inches. There is only one road in and one road out of La Push, and this road is often under three to four feet of water,” said Tribal Chairman Chaz Woodruff. Finally in 2012 President Obama signed the Quileute Tsunami Protection legislation, which gave the tribe land on higher ground, and this is where they will build the new school and 300 units of housing. “We want to build to bring the Quileute children home, and we want to build a school at the heart of higher ground for those children to attend,” said Susan Devine, project manager for the tribe.
Six additional schools have been approved for replacement. The Chichiltah-Jones Ranch Community School, a K-8 30 miles southwest of Gallup, serves Diné and Zuni children. In Bloomfield, New Mexico, the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School serves 180 students, 70 of whom live in the school’s dormitory. Ventilation at this school is so bad that teachers implemented fresh air breaks in the morning and afternoon to keep students and teachers awake. Also on the Navajo Reservation, Greasewood Springs Community School has 200 K-8 students in what School Board President Ruth Logan described as “grossly deficient, sometimes unfit and unsafe facilities.” One building at Laguna Elementary Schoolwas condemned in 2007 because of structural deficiencies, traumatizing parents and students who feared for the safety of their younger siblings. The school is located just 200 feet away from the Laguna Detention Facility and there are external doors to every classroom. Lukachukai Community School in Chinle, Arizona, serves 368 K-8 Diné students in facilities with a water and sewer system that was built in the 1930s. Summer school, along with the summer free meal program, were canceled in 2015 because of water issues. The K-8 Tonalea Redlake Elementary School on Navajo wants to add a residential building. Some students leave home at 5 a.m. and do not return until almost 6 p.m., and many students miss school in the winter because the buses cannot get to them. Structural conditions are so bad in the existing school buildings that plants are growing within the walls, in the restrooms, and in food storage areas.
President Obama has asked for $138.3 million for BIE school repair and construction in his proposed 2017 budget.
A GAO report released last month said that BIE does not really know how bad its schools are because in 2015 69 BIE schools were not inspected, despite the requirement that they be inspected every year. Since 2012, the number of uninspected BIE schools has been increasing; some schools have not been inspected at all in nearly a decade.
At the April 6 SCIA hearing, Roberts assured senators that all of the schools would be inspected this year and that the bureau was adding seven inspectors to make sure that happened.
In the meantime, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has introduced the Safe Academic Facilities and Environments for Tribal Youth Act (SAFETY Act), which would require the BIE and the Office of Management and Budget to develop a 10-year plan to bring all BIE schools into good condition, similar to Office of Managemen and Budget’s Defense Department school construction plan. The bill would also provide funding to improve teacher housing at BIE schools, which school replacement funds do not cover. Substandard teacher accommodations make it extremely difficult to recruit and retain teachers for BIE schools, according to several presenters at the February 2 meeting.