B.I.A.-School Shortfalls Blamed on Low Estimates

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs for several years has underestimated how much money is needed to run Indian schools, and shortfalls are so severe this year that many such schools have been forced to cut programs and lay off staff members, educators said at a Congressional hearing last week.

Witnesses said that funding has not kept pace with inflation, and has been insufficient to cover teacher-salary increases mandated by the Congress. As a result, they said, an effort to help B.I.A. teachers has caused layoffs.

In the current school year, the educators added, schools have had to eliminate extracurricular activities, stop busing dormitory students home on weekends, and defer essential maintenance.

"If this sounds like a system falling apart, it is,'' said Angela Barney-Nez, the executive director of the Navajo Area School Board Association.

The testimony brought a strong response from members of the House and Senate at the joint hearing. "This leads me to question B.I.A.'s commitment to educating Indian children,'' said Representative Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota.

But Joe Christie, the acting director of the B.I.A.'s office of Indian-education programs, made little effort to defend the agency. He cited technical difficulties of predicting enrollments as the primary reason for underestimates, and noted that funding has increased annually.

Mr. Christie said the B.I.A. prepares its estimates by taking "the President's request as a target,'' and then meeting with Indian groups to "prioritize'' programs, rather than basing the funding request on an estimate of how much schools need.

'Shaming' the Administration

Lawmakers and educators directed their outrage at the B.I.A. and the Bush Administration. But the true target of the hearing, an aide said, was the members of the House and Senate appropriations panels.

An analysis of appropriations-hearing records from recent years shows that educators have complained repeatedly about underestimates. Although the funding panels have earmarked more money each year for Indian schools than the B.I.A. requested, the amounts still have been insufficient, so that this year a supplemental appropriation is needed to ward off cutbacks.

The aide to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, which arranged the hearing with members of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, said its purpose was both to compile a persuasive record to influence appropriators--who "can't spend two hours'' on the single topic of B.I.A. schools--and also to "shame'' the Administration into making more realistic estimates.

The amounts in question are modest by federal standards--$321.4 million for Indian-school operating costs in 1992, or about half the funding for the drug-free-schools program.

In a letter read at the hearing, Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Dennis Brown said that an additional $14 million would be needed in fiscal 1992 to "avert diminished programs of studies for schools'' in the 1992-93 school year.

The National Indian Education Association estimates that adding $27 million to the fiscal 1992 funds, and $35 million to the B.I.A.'s request for fiscal 1993, would enable schools to maintain current services.

The largest component of the school-operations budget is the Indian School Equalization Program, which received $192.2 million for this year and $201.9 million for the next school year.

The I.S.E.P. distributes funds for salaries and other academic expenses based on weighted enrollment counts. Students in certain grades are given extra weight, as are pupils who are handicapped, gifted, not fluent in English, or living in dormitories. Total appropriations are divided by the total number of "weighted student units'' to yield the value of each unit.

At the hearing, educators charged that the B.I.A. consistently holds down its projections of the total number of weighted units. Records indicate that for fiscal 1990, for example, the B.I.A. predicted a student count of 39,100 and a total number of weighted units of 66,200. The counts would have yielded $2,470 per W.S.U. under the Administration's proposed funding level.

The year's actual count, however, was 39,781 students and 68,996 weighted units. Schools actually received $2,538 per W.S.U., but only because the Congress provided more than the B.I.A. had requested.

In the current school year, schools received $2,838 per W.S.U., despite underestimates of student counts, largely because the Congress appropriated extra funds to move the program to a forward-funded cycle.

Spending a 'Windfall'?

Mr. Christie suggested that the current shortfalls are due partially to schools' having viewed the forward-funding money as a "windfall'' to be spent last year, instead of being reserved as intended. He also said the extra appropriation was enough to cover teacher raises.

But Mr. Christie acknowledged that fiscal 1992 funds for use in the 1992-93 school year will represent a "substantial decrease'' at $2,672 per W.S.U. under current estimates.

Although the hearing focused on the school-equalization formula, witnesses said the B.I.A. also underestimates administrative grants for schools run by tribes under contract. In written testimony, B.I.A. officials conceded that schools have not received the amounts due them under a statutory formula.

Educators also said the B.I.A. underestimates busing costs. According to Senate staff aides, the agency's 1993 budget is based on a cost of $1.51 per mile, while the average cost of busing nationwide is $2.20 per mile.

Vol. 11, Issue 35, Pages 22, 25

Published in Print: May 20, 1992, as B.I.A.-School Shortfalls Blamed on Low Estimates
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