July 12, 2018

Udall Leads Roundtable on School Infrastructure Needs in Indian Country

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led a roundtable discussion with tribal leaders, tribal organizations, and administration officials to document the infrastructure needs of schools that serve Native communities.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that more must be done to deal with school infrastructure needs,” Udall said. “There exists a huge gap between the resources and the needs in schools throughout Indian country.”

Udall pressed Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) officials about the importance of monitoring federal agencies to ensure they manage existing resources wisely.

Udall pointed to BIA and BIE’s ongoing failure to correcting a fire safety system at Pine Hill BIE Schools in New Mexico, which was the subject of a recent report from the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General, as evidence that the department must do more to ensure student safety and avoid potential waste, fraud, and abuse in school infrastructure contracting.

“The BIA awarded two contracts worth $1.2 million to repair the system, but it still isn’t working,” Udall said. “Unacceptable doesn’t even begin to describe the department’s lack of performance here.”

BIE Director Tony Dearman responded to Udall: “The fire alarm system, as of tomorrow, should be completely fixed, and in two weeks we’ll be sending out our team to complete an inspection just to make sure everything’s completed and working fine. So as of tomorrow, fire alarms should be working. The lightning protection system, which is part of the problem and why we continue to lose our fire systems, should be completed in October.”

Udall has made oversight of Indian education programs a priority as vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. Since taking on the role, he has led three oversight hearings on BIE’s “High Risk” designation (1, 2, 3) and an additional oversight hearing on BIE school safety and security issues.

The National Indian Education Association estimates that 96 of BIE’s 183 schools are in poor condition. As of March 2018, BIE Director Tony Dearman estimated that the deferred maintenance backlog for BIE schools is $643 million.

Impact Aid is a federal program to supplement the lost tax base for locally operated school districts on or near federal lands. In a 2017 survey, the National Indian Impacted Schools Association found 56 percent of Impact Aid school facilities on or near Indian reservations are in poor or fair condition.

Tribal colleges and universities are a system of 36 tribally, congressionally, and federally chartered post-secondary institutions that serve Native communities. A 2014 survey by the American Indian College Fund found that 83 percent of tribal colleges lack adequate student housing and 74 percent lack adequate classroom space.