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Proposal To Restructure B.I.A. Draws Cool Response From Indian Leaders

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Washington--Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr.'s plan to restructure the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve educational services for Native Americans is meeting with a guarded response from tribal leaders and others who question not only the move's potential effectiveness, but also the Secretary's motives in making the proposal.

Mr. Lujan proposed this fall that the b.i.a. be split into three parts: a Bureau of Indian Education, an Office of American Indian Trust, and a smaller b.i.a., which has been dubbed "the balance of the bureau," or bob

The Secretary argues that his proposal--which he estimates would cost an additional $200 million a year--would streamline administration and improve the quality of the bia's teaching staff.

But tribal leaders fear that the restructuring might do little good, and possibly even some harm, to the services provided to some 30,000 Indian students nationwide.

Such powerful organizations as the National Indian Education Association and the National Congress of American Indians have officially asked Mr. Lujan to delay any action until the tribes have had an opportunity to study the proposal further.

In a letter to the n.c.a.i.'s executive committee, N. Gay Kingman, the organization's executive director, noted that "there seems to be a groundswell from tribes to halt the reorganization until [they] can analyze the consequences of such a major change."

Mr. Lujan currently is meeting with leaders of the various tribes to explain his proposal.

The reorganization is expected to be included under the department's submissions during the budget process for fiscal year 1992.

At least some of the Indian leaders' discontent stems from the manner in which they learned of the Secretary's intentions. The Secretary made his proposal public in September without consulting tribal leaders, who were not mollified when Mr. Lujan briefed them on it during the annual meeting of the ncai in Albuquerque later that month.

Bia spokesmen later acknowledged that they had failed to notify the tribes of the proposal before the briefing.

At the briefing, Mr. Lujan argued that one advantage of his proposal is "that you'd have a group of [bia employees] focusing on education."

"We'd make education a priority," he added. "We'd fund centers for b.i.a. teachers, providing better training."

But critics have attacked the change as a pointless, and probably ineffective, bureaucratic reshuffling.

The Arizona Republic, in an editorial, lampooned the concept by poking fun at the new designations that would accompany the changes.

"bob and ed sound like a com8edy routine or a couple of guys doing TV commercials for a wine cooler," the editorial said.

The quip has been gaining currency among opponents of the restructuring.

But Mr. Lujan's proposal has come under fire from quarters other than the Indian community.

The National Federation of Federal Employees has also questioned the change, arguing that the proposed reorganization would result in the closing of several bia field offices.

"We believe that the bureau is in the process of surreptitiously implementing a reorganization without regard to the Congressional oversight process, the federal regulations governing such reorganizations, and the desires of the Indian tribes themselves," wrote James M. Pierce, the nffe's president, in a letter to Congressional leaders.

Observers also have questioned whether the proposal is Mr. Lujan's effort to pre-empt a more sweeping reorganization of the agency that was proposed by a special investigative panel of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

The panel recommended abolishing the bia and making payments of federal funds directly to tribes.

One member of the panel, Senator Dennis DeConcini, Democrat of Arizona, has said that Mr. Lujan's proposal would not effectively change the bia's operations because the bureau itself would continue to exist.

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