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Obama administration to request new funding for American Indian schools

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will request $1 billion in funding for American Indian education when it releases its budget next week, including millions for school construction desperately needed at schools like one in Minnesota.

The request is $150 million more than the Bureau of Indian Education’s budget for the current fiscal year, and if enacted, it would be the largest budget the program has seen since the stimulus package in 2009. The request includes $45 million for replacement school construction, a $25 million boost over this year’s number, though not nearly enough to address the problem of disrepair among Indian schools.

By government estimates, one-third of BIE’s 183 schools nationwide are in poor condition, and there are still two facilities on a 2004 list of schools that need to be replaced. Until recently, Congress and the Obama administration have put off addressing the problem. Congress appropriated $20 million for school construction last year, even though the administration had requested just $3.2 million. Before that, the administration had not requested school construction funding since 2010.

If enacted by Congress, Obama’s request for next year would close out the 2004 list of replacement schools, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on a press call Thursday afternoon. Officials expect to release a new list of schools in need of replacement this spring or summer.

The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on Minnesota’s Leech Lake Indian Reservation figures to be on that list. Housed in a used barn, it’s the only “poor” rated BIE school among the four in Minnesota, and tribal officials have long requested funds to replace it. Jewell, who visited the school last summer, highlighted it as indicative of those needing to be replaced around the country.

“The hallways are small, the building is freezing cold in the winter, it leaks, it smells and it certainly is not conducive to learning,” she said Thursday.

The budget request still needs to get through Congress, but administration officials said they expect the funding will receive bipartisan support. Minnesota lawmakers hailed the announcement on Thursday. Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee dealing with Indian Affairs spending, called it an “important recognition by the administration that BIE school construction funding needs tremendous improvement.”

Sen. Al Franken, who sits on both the Senate Indian Affairs and Education committees, said, “This new budget proposal from the Department of Interior is a sign that people are paying attention. These children deserve better, and I’m going to keep fighting for them.”

Officials said a visit to North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last year spurred Obama toward action on Indian schools, something Jewell said has been on her radar since she took over as secretary in 2013.

Still, $45 million won’t be enough to solve the department’s problems: government studies estimate it would take more than $1 billion to bring the system’s schools up to satisfactory levels. But Jewell said the request "was as far as we could reasonably go" to both fit within the overall budget and request funding for other BIE priorities.

“This is just step one in a multi-year approach that will go well beyond the Obama administration to transforming Indian education for the benefit of any children, frankly, for the next generation of Indian tribes and tribal leaders in this country,” Jewell said.

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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