Senators Pledge To Seek Funds for Indian Schools
Washington--Responding to Native American educators who described the deplorable condition of their school buildings, several senators pledged at a hearing last week to work to earmark additional funds to repair and replace Indian schools.
Members of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs noted at the hearing that more than 50 schools--many with antiquated plumbing, heating, and electrical systems and some with severe structural damage or threatened with the loss of accreditation--are in dire need of repair or replacement.
But, the senators complained, the Interior Department's office of construction management is only able to pay for and work on one or two sites a year.
President Bush has requested $9 million in school-construction funds for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. Critics have said the money would only be enough to pay for the construction of one school and the completion of another.
In addition, the President has asked for $35 million for repairs and improvements at Indian schools. That compares with Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan's $56-million request for such projects, said David Matheson, director of Interior's construction office.
In contrast, an Interior spokesman said a total of $550 million in construction, repair, and improvement needs have been identified.
Arguing that more money is needed now, Senator Dennis DeConcini, Democrat of Arizona, said a number of schools are "so old, neglected, and unsafe that they impede the educational process."
Without committing himself, Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, said additional construction funds for Indian schools could be included in an upcoming supplemental-spending bill that will provide money for Kurdish refugees.
The senators' concerns were underscored by an afternoon of testimony from tribal leaders and educators from some of the schools most in need of repair and construction.
Also at last week's hearing, James R. Richards, the Interior Department's Inspector General, disclosed that the department lacks an accountability mechanism to ensure that school-construction projects are completed.
That finding was among several included in a draft report on Indian-school construction detailed at the hearing by Mr. Richards.
The report, dated April 11, concluded that thousands of students, teachers, and other employees live and work in unsafe and unsanitary school buildings and dormitories.
Moreover, these "life threatening" conditions go unrepaired for a number of years, despite the fact that officials in the construction-management office and the bureau know about them, Harold Bloom, the de-
partment's assistant inspector general for audits, states in a letter accompanying the draft.
The problem, Mr. Bloom and Mr. Richards say, is that no one within the bureau or the construction-management office, either in Washington or in the field, is held accountable for, as Mr. Bloom says in his letter, "correcting identified health and safety deficiencies and systemic breakdowns within their areas of responsibility."
The report also notes that a 1990 task force assigned to study the condition of bia schools said the management of such facilities is a "tripartite nightmare."
The management has not defined areas of responsibility and accountability, tolerates poor standards, fails to discipline employees, and does not show "that anyone cared enough to correct the problem," the report cites the task force as saying.
The report says the condition of facilities at Many Farms (Ariz.) High School illustrates a number of typical problems of bureau-run schools.
According to the report: The bureau has "already demolished a classroom building because of foundation settlement, which had also caused large cracks in the walls of two other buildings. The boys' dormitory would be considered uninhabitable under current health codes. The dormitory roof leaked, windows were broken or missing, and light fixtures did not work. Restrooms were dirty and unsanitary, with corroded toilets that did not work, mildewed shower stalls, and the total absence of any sanitary supplies such as soap, towels, or toilet paper."
Mr. Richards testified that the details contained in the report about the conditions at Many Farms had not changed since a similar audit in June 1987.
Numerous tribal leaders and Indian educators described problems similar to those at Many Farms, including one school where the plumbing system is so poor that drinking water needs to be brought in in bottles.
The leaders and educators also said the bureau's system of annually ranking projects most in need of construction assistance should be revised.
The problem, several leaders testified, is that a school ranked fourth on the priority list one fiscal year, for instance, will likely not get funding that year, and then may be bumped down several spaces during the next fiscal year, depending on who applies for assistance.
Some leaders suggested a freeze on the list until all priority projects are completed.
To expedite the construction process, several leaders suggested that the construction of schools and facilities be contracted out to the tribes or to private companies.
"We're ready to take it on," said Marshall Plummer, vice president of the Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Ariz.
Karen J. Funk of the National Indian Education Association said she was pleased that the committee held a hearing on the state of Indian school facilities.
"I don't ever recall a hearing on school construction before," she said, "and it appears that we're getting some positive interest from Congress."