McCollum seeks huge funding increase for Indian schools

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum

WASHINGTON — Rep. Betty McCollum has asked House appropriators to approve five times more money to fix federally managed Indian schools than President Obama requested in a bid to dramatically slice the time it would take for the more than 60 schools in poor or worse condition to come up to acceptable standards.

One third of the schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) — including Bug-O-Nay-Ge Shig in Bena, Minn. — are rated in poor physical condition. Circle of Life in White Earth was rated in even worse condition — listed back in 2004 as among the 14 schools most in need of having facilities replaced.

It takes between $15 million and $50 million to replace a school entirely, according to BIE spokeswoman Nedra Darling, and Obama’s Indian schools construction budget calls for $52.8 million to be spent in fiscal 2011. At that funding level, it would take about 30 years to fix them all, according to Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

McCollum’s request, detailed in a letter to the head of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, is for $263 million.

“We need to be on a trajectory to actually making sure that schools get fixed,” said Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, adding that schools have been “just treading water” because of inadequate funding for years.

Addressing the backlog
Having 63 Indian schools out of the 183 under BIE control in “poor” physical condition is hardly cause for celebration, though officials note it is a sign of progress. Ten years ago, there were more than 120 on that list.

Over the past 10 years, more than $1.3 billion has been allocated for Indian school construction, including about $250 million under the stimulus law. So while Obama’s request this year is half of what was budgeted last year, officials point to the stimulus funds as evidence that more money is actually being spent to build schools.

“The president’s FY 2011 budget requests reflects the work accomplished in the past 10 years as well as the on-going work funded by the Recovery Act and other competing funding needs across Indian Country,” said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Indian Affairs supports the president’s FY 2011 budget request.  Should the Congress through the annual appropriation for FY 2011 provide additional funds, Indian Affairs would follow the direction of the Congress in executing the program.”

McCollum’s funding request came in consultation with the National Indian Education Association, which has long lobbied for more money for Indian schools. The inadequate physical structures are part of the reason, they say, that three quarters of Indian schools fail to meet federal testing standards. Three of the four Indian schools in Minnesota failed to meet those standards last year.

“It is unjust to expect our students to succeed academically when we fail to provide them with a proper environment to achieve success,” Patricia Whitefoot, president of the National Indian Education Association, said in an interview earlier this year.

Progress and process

McCollum is the only Minnesotan on the House Appropriations or Budget committees, meaning she’ll play the state’s largest role in crafting the legislation that outlines how every cent in Washington gets spent. Hearings on her request and others in the appropriations bill will begin in May.

“We need to get at the backlog of this,” Harper said.

One bright spot on the Indian schools construction horizon may be at Circle of Life School in White Earth. It will take an estimated $15.6 million to replace facilities at that school, $1.7 million of which has already been earmarked for advanced planning and design costs.

It has been years of delay — the Interior Department’s budget justification report to Congress notes that work on Circle of Life was originally scheduled to have been finished this year — but construction is expected to finally begin later this year, Darling said.

Barring any further delay, officials expect construction to be finished and the school to be in well-above acceptable condition by the time classes begin in 2012.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 04/02/2010 - 09:47 am.

    What a waste of taxpayers money. Instead of giving more of my hard-earned money away, why not force the rich native americans to share some of their wealth with the lower-income tribes? No land was taken away from any indian alive today, so we must we continue to suffer? Each of have their own sovereign nation, let them build their own schools.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/02/2010 - 10:23 am.

    Those interested in the underlying stats for 2008-2009 can find them here:

    The BIE operates 186 schools with a student body of approximately 47,000 (roughly the size of St. Paul’s total enrollment). One-half of the students are categorized as either limited english proficiency (LEP) or special education.

    If one were to focus only on the efficient use of funds, one could reasonably ask whether continued operation of schools by the BIE is prudent.

  3. Submitted by Van Mueller on 04/02/2010 - 11:57 am.

    I suggest that Mac get better informed before he provides solutions for Indian children and tribes. He could begin by visiting several of the northern tribes(White Earth, Red Lake etc.) and see the schooling conditions, the housing conditions, the health care etc. Even though the Mdewakanton Sioux has given millions to these tribes the conditions are deplorable. Finally I would ask how are the white people of Minnesota ” suffering ” because of the presence of Native Americans ?

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/02/2010 - 12:22 pm.

    Thank you, Mr. Mueller (#3). The “rich” native Americans who operate casinos do transfer a goodly portion of their profits to try to better the lot of the many who are desperately poor, whether on reservations or in cities. The need, however, is too great for almost any amount they can afford to be enough.

    It would be hard for Minnesota to find a better representative than Betty McCollum. Fortunately, we can re-elect her in November.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/02/2010 - 01:23 pm.


    The “rich native Americans who operate the casinos” also “transfer” a large portion of their profits to the DFL.

    It seems Betty is always looking for huge increases in government funding. Spending our children’s and grandchildren’s money is her specialty.

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 04/02/2010 - 01:35 pm.

    What a good idea! Share the wealth! I assume you’re also in favor of the idea for the rest of the state and the country–providing the poorest of the poor with part of your–and everyone’s–wealth to lift them out of poverty, give them good schools and health care, and the like.

  7. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 04/02/2010 - 07:30 pm.

    How much and what are your sources? Who said so? Credible evidence.
    Doesn’t change the fact that Indians in the northern part of Minnesota are the poorest people in America. Why don’t you check it out yourself? Not a long drive.

  8. Submitted by Kevin Whalen on 04/03/2010 - 10:33 pm.


    A little information for you. Certain groups of Native Americans are dealt with as sovereign nations because that’s the way that policy makers– including Thomas Jefferson– chose to deal with them. Folks like Jefferson and Secretary of War John Knox determined that a combination of dependency and dispossession would best serve the interests of land-hungry whites. So, during the treaty era, Indians signed away lands in return for money, along with assistance with agricultural and educational development. In short, the reason that the federal government provides educational assistance to Anishinaabe peoples is because it agreed to do so in return for their lands.

    To assert that the United States should cease to inflict “suffering” on white taxpayers by honoring its treaties with Indian peoples is profoundly illogical for a few reasons. First, it ignores the fact that Indians are treated as semi-sovereign nations in part because United States policy makers chose to treat them as such. Second, and more importantly, the idea that a treaty should only be valid as long as its signatories remain living is like saying that a law passed by congress should only apply to people who were alive when the law was passed. I was born after Ponzi schemes were made illegal, so why should I suffer from the law that bans Ponzi schemes?

  9. Submitted by Sally Paulsen on 04/05/2010 - 09:44 pm.

    The simple fact of the matter is, the federal government doesn’t have the money. I’m sorry. They can’t help you. Ask China.

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