BIE Boilers 1959
Photo: GAO-15-389T
Boilers in a BIE school built in 1959. School and regional BIA authorities had deemed the boilers safe, but a BIE school safety specialist has said they are a major health and safety hazard.

In Harm’s Way: Native Students Learning in Crumbling Buildings

Tanya H. Lee

Thousands of American Indian children went to school today in buildings that are an immediate and serious threat to their health and safety.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a teleconference with reporters, “BIE schools are historically some of the lowest-performing schools in the nation. The infrastructure crumbling and they have a severe lack of resources.”

Mold, structurally-unsound buildings, overflowing toilets in disgusting restrooms, unreliable water supplies, freezing or blazing hot temperatures and overcrowding are just some of the conditions these children must contend with every day. It’s amazing they go to school at all.

One student attending the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Minnesota said, “All thirteen years I’ve been told that education is very important, but it’s hard for me to believe this when I see how my school looks compared to other schools.”

Research bears out what this student knows intuitively—the ability of students to learn is correlated with the quality of the buildings in which they do that learning.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office on educational outcomes and school facilities in schools receiving impact aid for American Indian students found, “A majority of the studies GAO reviewed indicated that better school facilities were associated with better student outcomes—such as higher scores on achievement tests or higher student attendance rates.” Just last month, Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security, testified before the House Appropriations Committee, “Evidence shows that poor school facilities equate to poor educational outcomes for students.”

Shoddy repair work is a consistent problem in BIE schools. Here a $3.5-million project to replace roofs in 2010 has led to leaks in classroom ceilings. After repeated attempts to get the roofs repaired, the problems have not been resolved and the practice of not withholding payments until after construction work has been completed and approved leaves BIE with little leverage. (Photo: GAO-15-389T)

BIE operates 183 school facilities serving approximately 41,000 students on 64 reservations in 23 states. The estimated price tag to bring the 63 schools in poor condition at the end of 2011 up to fair or good condition—or to replace them with new construction—and to repair the schools in bad, but not that bad, condition: $1.3 billion, according to the report “Broken Promises, Broken Schools.” The amount for repairs and replacement in the president’s FY16 budget recommendation: $133 million.

Even if Congress goes along with that number for each year going forward, it would take 10 years just to make the repairs that are needed today. In the meantime, another 34 schools would join the 49 that have already exceeded their maximum life expectancy. It would take decades just to catch up.

Looking at earlier reports, it appears we are falling behind, not catching up.

A 1997 GAO report found comparable need and a similar price tag. Two-thirds of the 173 BIE school buildings then in operation, serving the needs of 47,000 American Indian school children, needed significant repairs at an estimated cost of $754 million ($1.1 billion in today’s dollars). This report found BIE schools to be in generally worse condition than the nation’s other schools, to have more unsatisfactory environmental factors and to be less equipped to support computer and communications technology.

Before FY 1993, the BIA issued a new list of prioritized schools every year, but that resulted in some schools being dropped as each new year’s list was compiled. In 1993, a new strategy was put in place under which each list of schools would be completed before the next list was begun. In 1993, 16 schools were on the list. In 2000, the BIE issued a list of 20 priority schools, and in 2003 a list of 12 schools, all of which have been repaired or replaced. The two schools remaining on the 2004 priority list, Little Singer Community School and Cove Day School, both in Arizona, are expected to be completed with the funding proposed in the FY 2016 budget.

Children bump their heads on heating pipes in a BIE elementary school dormitory built in 1941. (Photo: GAO-15-389T)

While the FY 2016 proposed $133 million is significantly larger than the funding for school repair and replacement in recent years, it is not unprecedented. BIE school replacement funding was $140 million in 2001, about $130 million in 2002 and 2003, back to $140 million in 2004 and then fell sharply in 2005 to about $60 million and continued to decline until it was about $5 million in 2011.

So funding for school repair and construction plummeted just as schools were attempting to meet the new requirements of No Child Left Behind. The program received a one-time boost in 2009 when $244,239,342 was allocated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the federal sequester cut deeply into BIA funding beginning in 2013.

To put this amount of money in context, the average cost of building a new high school in the U.S. is $20 million; the cost of a new elementary school is $7 million. Schools in some wealthier communities, such as Los Angeles and Newton, Mass., can run $200 million and more. Replacing the off-reservation K-8 Pinto Pintado School and dormitory in New Mexico cost approximately $40 million. The project, which had been on the priority list since 2003, was accomplished in 2011 using ARRA funding. The same funding was used to provide $52.5 million for the Rough Rock Community School Replacement Project, also on the Navajo Reservation.

The difficulties BIE faces have long been on the federal government’s to-do list and reports on how to improve education for American Indian children number in the dozens. In 1980, GAO considered the question of whether the BIA should continue to educate American Indian children or turn that job over to the Department of Education, following a 1977 report, “Concerted Effort Needed to Improve Indian Education.”

A high-voltage electrical panel installed next to a dishwasher created a risk of electric shock. The condition has since been resolved. (Photo GAO-15-389T)

In 1980 GAO wrote, “GAO repeatedly reported during the 1970s that the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to provide Indians a quality education, and that severe management problems had persisted for years,” but “the Education Amendments of 1978 have resulted in the Bureau’s taking some very positive actions to correct deficiencies in its educational delivery system to Indians. The new organizational changes give the Director, Office of Indian Education Programs, direct line authority over education. This change along with the new education personnel system and funding criteria provide an excellent opportunity for the Bureau to improve its education programs. Thirty-five years later, GAO reports on Indian education say pretty much the same thing.

The physical condition of school facilities in Indian country means not only appalling learning conditions for some American Indian children, but they make it difficult to attract and retain good teachers and principals, according to Jewell, and they mean that money intended for instruction must sometimes be diverted to keep the buildings lit and heated.

Over the course of the past several months, GAO has identified several areas in which BIE could improve its oversight and management of schools and BIA has developed a Blueprint for Reform that it is putting into effect.

Poorly maintained rainspouts have allowed water to collect behind a retaining wall, causing the foundation of the building to separate from the sidewalk, a condition that could compromise the foundation of this BIE-operated school. (Photo GAO-15-389T)

In February, GAO issued “Preliminary Results Show Continued Challenges to the Oversight and Support of Education Facilities,” which identified several ongoing problems with the physical condition of school facilities operated by the BIE, including inadequate data collection procedures, insufficient funding, problems with new construction and a lack of transparency in how school needs are assessed. BIA has begun addressing some of those problems. For example, a new data collection system is being implemented and the agency has described in writing its procedures for evaluating which schools will get first priority next time around.

Every GAO report on Indian education for the past 40 years has included a statement about the federal government’s responsibility to educate Indian children, “a responsibility established in federal statutes, treaties, court decisions, and executive actions.” And then goes on to describe in detail the ways in which the federal government has failed to meet that responsibility.

Very few (probably none) of the 535 men and women in Congress who make the decisions about funding BIE schools would allow their own children to set foot in many BIE schools, let alone attend them every day. They should read the GAO reports they have asked for before they next vote on Indian education funding.

New construction can fail for lack of oversight in the design stage of the project. The door to this bus maintenance building does not close when there is a large bus inside the facility. (Photo: GAO-15-389T)

All photos are from “Indian Affairs: Preliminary Results Show Continued Challenges to the Oversight and Support of Education Facilities,” GAO-15-389T, February 27, 2015

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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on January 29:

BIE schools are historically some of the lowest-performing schools in the nation. The infrastructure crumbling and they have a severe lack of resources.

The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in northern Minnesota was never intended to be a school building; it was intended to be a facility that supported heavy equipment training. The hallways are small. The building is frigid cold in the winter. It leaks, it smells and it certainly is not conducive to learning, particularly in the sciences, which are so important in high school.

Rock Creek in the Standing Rock Reservation, a school that is crumbling, where two out of the three facilities for teachers are available and one of them is completely in disrepair, where the portables are not put on foundations so they’re sinking and where the school has to chisel out the landing areas so the doors can actually be opened.

The Crystal Boarding school in Arizona [sic] where 50 percent of the boarding school capacity is literally boarded up because the school had fallen into disrepair and they were currently uninhabitable and where the school itself was very, very old, historic, but falling apart around the students that were there.

Or the Moencopi Day School in on the Hopi Reservation where they are [showing] fairly strong academic performance levels because of a dedicated principal and a dedicated staff but where more than 50 percent of the students are in portables that were put in place in the 1980s. Despite the heroic efforts of the person keeping the facility maintained are really, it’s really not conducive to the kind of learning that those students need.

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