Equity & Diversity

Better Management Needed For Native American School Facilities, GAO Finds

By Corey Mitchell — March 02, 2015 2 min read
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The Bureau of Indian Education can’t effectively track and address school facility problems because of poor data collection and quality controls, a congressional watchdog agency has found.

The Government Accountability Office released a 29-page report, detailing how staff cuts, limited institutional knowledge, lack of consistent oversight on construction projects, and poor communication also hinders the BIE’s ability to maintain facilities and provide technical assistance to schools.

As part of the investigation, GAO staff visited BIE schools in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Dakota that reported facing challenges with the quality of new construction, limited funding, remote locations and aging buildings and infrastructure.

At one school, investigators found that roofs for a $3.5 million school renovation project have leaked since they were installed in 2010, causing mold and ceiling damage in classrooms. Long-standing problems at the BIE could “affect their ability to provide safe, quality educational environments for students,” the report’s authors wrote.

The BIE operates out of the U.S. Interior Department. In 2014, Interior’s Indian affairs office funded the operations, maintenance, construction, and repair of about 1,785 school buildings, worth an estimated $4.2 billion. Many of the schools include not only educational buildings, but also student dormitories.

Several issues identified in the report have remained unresolved for nearly two decades. GAO investigations conducted as far back as 1997 called for more reliable national data to assess the condition of BIE facilities.

A 2003 GAO report revealed that “inaccurate and incomplete data entry by school officials, ineffective agency guidance, limited training ... and agency staff not being held accountable for ensuring data integrity.”

“High quality school facilities are extremely important to ensure that Indian students are educated in a safe environment that is conducive to learning. However, for decades, Indian Affairs has been hampered by fundamental challenges in managing school facilities. In our previous work, we have also found significant weaknesses with Indian Affairs’ oversight of BIE schools in general,” the report concluded.

“Unless these issues are addressed, some students will continue to be educated in poor facilities that do not support their long-term success.”

The BIE’s institutional struggles are not restricted to school facilities. A GAO report released in November found that the BIE schools have serious financial problems, including a lack of proper oversight and accumulations of unspent funds that aren’t reaching classrooms and students as intended.

The GAO plans to issue a final report on school facilities later this year that will provide a more complete picture on the conditions of BIE school facilities as well as Indian Affairs’ accountability for school construction and repair.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.