U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center left, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center right, visited Maine’s Beatrice Rafferty School in August of 2014. The school had originally been allocated $3.5 million for planning, but Congress upped the funding to $20.1 million in order to build a new school.
WASHINGTON — From budget limits to the national debt, much of the debate Washington today focuses on cutting spending. But on at least one line item in President Obama’s budget, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the government needs to spend more.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said she and a group of members, including Republicans, are looking for ways to boost funding for school construction on tribal lands around the country, even after Obama proposed pumping millions in new money into it.
Rep. Betty McCollum
Tribal school construction has been neglected for some time, so even though Obama proposed more than doubling its modest budget next year, it’s not nearly enough to confront the problem of broken down schools around the country. In Minnesota, the Leech Lake Reservation’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, typifies this — it’s housed in a used pole barn and students have taken to wearing winter coats while in the school. When winds reach 40 miles per hour, teachers move children to other buildings.
Still, officials are heartened that the issue is at least on the radar — the Bug School, for example, isn’t funded in Obama’s plan, but tribal chairwoman Carri Jones issued a statement saying the tribe is “extremely pleased and grateful” that the president included new funds in his budget.
On Capitol Hill, funding for Indian education, especially school construction, is an area of relative bipartisanship: last year, for example, both parties agreed on a large spending increase for replacement school construction around the country, above what even Obama proposed. McCollum credits this to trust and treaty obligations the United States government has to tribes across America — the U.S. has a responsibility to support tribes, and it’s one Congress takes seriously.
There are still a lot of questions about what McCollum and others are trying to do, like how much money they’re looking for, and where it will come from. For now, she’s not getting into details, except to say that she thinks more money could be on its way.
“This is not enough money and we need to come up with a plan that would have tribal nations, American children who are members of tribal nations, going to safe schools, 21st century schools,” she said.
Obama’s plan wins bipartisan support
Obama has proposed a $1 billion budget for the Bureau of Indian Education in 2016 — a $150 million increase over current levels. That includes $45 million for new school construction. The budget represents a big increase over what Obama has looked for in the past — new school construction saw a big influx of funding in the stimulus act in 2009, but his $3.5 million request last year was his first since 2011.
Article continues after advertisement
Even so, the problem is much bigger than what’s in Obama’s budget. His proposal would go toward building the last two buildings on a 2004 list of replaceable schools, but that would still leave behind a $1.3 billion backlog of dilapidated schools nationwide.
Members on both sides of the aisle greeted the request as a welcome change of pace after what McCollum described as a “time out” for BIE construction funding. Republican Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoman on the Appropriations Committee with whom McCollum has worked on Indian issues, said the proposal “is an area where we can cooperate and hopefully make a lot of progress on.”
Minnesota Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House Education Committee, said in a statement that he’s “pleased” by the proposal and vowed to “look more closely at this issue and demand better for these students.”
All that said, everyone recognizes the plan only accounts for two schools-worth of funding. When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell introduced Obama’s plan to reporters last month, she acknowledged that $45 million isn’t enough to made major inroads in the school construction backlog. She called it “just step one in a multi-year approach” to fixing the backlog, and said it “was as far as we could reasonably go” to fit funding into the overall budget and get lawmakers’ approval.
Happy with the plan, but looking for more
Congress has a history of going above and beyond what the Obama administration requests on BIE issues. Last year, for example, Obama requested $3.5 million to plan construction of a new BIE school in Maine. Congress appropriated $20.1 million to straight-up build the school instead.
Since Obama’s 2016 budget covers the money needed to rebuild the schools still on the government’s list, any money above that could go toward planning the schools that might be included on a new replacement list, McCollum said.
“When we see the list and we have a dollar figure off the list, then we need to have the big idea, the big plan on a way forward so we can get these schools reconstructed so they can be repaired, and rebuilt where they need to be taken down,” she said.
To that end, she and other budget writers are scouring the budget — from the Interior Department and beyond — trying to find funding to pump up BIE construction even further. It’s a bipartisan effort: McCollum said she, Cole and a group of other Republicans began discussing additional funding schemes while they toured Indian Country in Arizona last month.
“We were literally at dinner like, ‘what if we try this, what if we try that, well we’re going to talk to Treasury, we’re going to talk to OMB, let’s talk to the White House,’ ” she said.
There is danger here, of course, that partisan budget fights could delay or derail the whole process. The Interior budget is relatively small, which McCollum said makes it difficult to shift funding toward a bipartisan priority like Indian schools when there are other areas — clean air and water, wildfire prevention — that need funding. It’s easier to find money for Defense Department schools (the only other school system the federal government runs) because the DOD budget is so big.
But that’s what negotiations are for. McCollum and Oklahoma’s Cole both said they expect to eventually find a path forward on this.
“The trick is always finding the money, because the president is proposing this having disregarded the budget caps,” Cole said. “But it wouldn’t be the first time, on Interior Approps, we’ve been able to rob Peter to pay Paul. And the Democrats might not like the Peter, but we all agree on the Paul that needs help, in this case Indian Education.”
Bug School could get on new list
Minnesota’s BIE schools
Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School Bena, MN Facility condition (2011): Poor
Circle of Life School White Earth, MN Facility condition (2011): Good
Fond du Lac Ojibwe School Cloquet, MN Facility condition (2011): Good
Nay-Ah-Shing School Onamia, MN Facility condition (2011): Good
The Leech Lake Reservation’s Bug School has gained some notoriety in the Indian education community. Jewell visited it last summer and in announcing Obama’s funding request, mentioned it as the type of school that needs to be replaced. Lawmakers did the same in a budget bill Congress passed in December.
When officials made their list of replacement schools in 2004, they left off the Bug School. The Interior Department has now assembled a team of experts from the Department of Defense’ school system and the Interior Department to write a new list and come up with criteria meant to more accurately identify replaceable schools.
For example, McCollum said, the last list considered the condition of all the schools in an individual district, and because Leech Lake’s elementary schools are in comparably acceptable condition, the Bug School was less likely to make the cut. Its inclusion in a budget bill, and the attention Jewell has given it, indicates its inclusion on a new list, which is expected this spring.
“We are extremely pleased and grateful that the President’s budget includes substantially more funding for BIE school construction and rehabilitation than in years past and that it begins to recognize the significant need in Indian Country for a safe learning environment for our students,” Jones, the Leech Lake tribal chairwoman, said in a statement to MinnPost. “We are fighting to give our community a new high school facility because our children deserve the best educational opportunities.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry