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Sens. Franken, Dorgan in White Earth for field hearing on schools

WHITE EARTH, Minn. -- The Bureau of Indian Affairs came in for some heavy criticism here Saturday at a rare oversight field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee attended by U.S. Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor pointed out it was the first such hearing in memory to be held on an Indian reservation.

Tribal officials blasted the BIA for being thickly opaque, unresponsive and frustratingly bureaucratic.

A new $16 million school to replace the Circle of Life School in White Earth village is now under construction, and has been in the planning stages since it made the list of schools to be repaired or replaced in 2006.

Vizenor said the process was slowed by the turtle's pace at which the BIA answers email inquiries from tribes. One question took two months to answer. Others were never answered at all.

All email inquires go to the bottom of a list at the BIA and are supposed to be answered within 21 days, but often aren't.

Money problems

But the biggest problem is lack of money for school repairs and replacement, something Congress controls, not the BIA.

The BIA is responsible for 183 schools on 63 reservations in 23 states, which serve about 41,000 students.

One of those is the Chief Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School near Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Reservation.

Mike Bongo, secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Tribe, said the school serves 300 students in grades K-12.

"The elementary and middle school facilities are in satisfactory condition," he testified, "but the high school is in dire need of replacement. The current high school is a metal-clad pole barn, formerly used as an agricultural building. One third of the high school was destroyed in a gas explosion in 1992.

It was repaired, but he said "the facility has serious structural and mechanical deficiencies and lacks proper insulation. It does not meet safety, fire and security standards due to the flimsiness of the construction materials, electrical problems and lack of alarm systems."

The sad and alarming thing, Bongo noted, is that the Bug School is on the bottom third of a 63-school BIA list for repairs or replacement -- presumably meaning there are 40 Indian schools in worse condition.

Lindsey White, a high school senior and longtime student at the Bug School, testified that the poor facilities make it more difficult to learn, especially with heating problems in the wintertime.

A new high school will cost about $15 million, Bongo said.

Treaty obligations

Dorgan said he has seen Indian schools that have no working fire alarms, or -- like the current Circle of Life School -- that have been functioning for years in spite of being condemned.

"Somebody's got to be blowing the whistle here and saying something's not right -- do we have to wait until kids die in a fire? The current system puts kids at risk," Dorgan said.

In exchange for Indian lands given up in treaties, the federal government agreed to provide for the health, education and welfare of Indian people "in perpetuity," Franken said. "We haven't been keeping our end of the deal."

It used to be worse

Things could be worse, and they have been.

About half the problem has been rectified over the past 10 years, testified John Rever, BIA director of facilities, environmental and cultural resources.

In the past decade, he said, over $2.5 billion has been provided for construction, repair and maintenance to reduce the number of schools in "poor" condition to 63 -- down from 120 schools 10 years ago.

But with the recession, the agency's 2011 budget for school repair and replacement has been reduced to $57 million from $110 million, he said.

Since much of that goes into ongoing maintenance, it leaves only about $13 million-$14 million for school repairs and replacement nationwide.

BIA-funded school construction projects tend to be expensive. The agency landed $278 million in stimulus funds and spent about $134 million of that on just three new schools in the Southwest.

(The rest went to improvements at 58 schools, including 14 major renovation projects, Rever said.)

If those building costs went down, more schools could be fixed or replaced.

That's why the committee also heard testimony from Marty Mullany on behalf of the Modular Building Institute.

Modular buildings can be less expensive and take less time to build because they are mostly built in a factory, as with Dynamic Homes in Detroit Lakes, and shipped to the construction site to be completed.