Chair McCollum Statement at Oversight Hearing on Indian Education Construction

2019-07-24 15:00

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chair of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's oversight hearing on Indian education construction:

Good afternoon.  I’d like to welcome everyone to this hearing on Indian education construction. The school campus and facility replacement programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will be our primary focus today.

Providing the necessary school buildings and infrastructure for learning is an essential part of the Federal government’s trust responsibility to tribal nations. Funding education construction has been a priority for me and my colleagues on this subcommittee as we crafted our bill. The impact of the condition of school facilities on the educational achievements of students is well-documented. Children need safe and welcoming spaces to be healthy and engaged and ready to learn.

Yet, seventy-three of the 183 schools and dormitories that the BIA is responsible for maintaining are eligible for replacement, or have been provided funding for replacement, according to the BIA. These schools are either in poor condition OR they are over fifty years old and educate 75 percent or more of their students in portable units. This Committee has been working to address these deplorable conditions for years. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2018, we appropriated $283 million for school campus and facility construction. Although all of the funds have been allocated, as of this month, $107 million remains unobligated by the Bureau.

And just for clarification, even for those funds that have been obligated, it just means that BIA has entered into a grant agreement with a Tribe, not that construction has been completed. To date, only one dormitory from the 2004 school replacement list has been completed with the funds we appropriated since 2012. Additionally of the three school facilities that have been allocated replacement facility funds, only one – the Leech Lake High School- has been completed.

In 2017, GAO reviewed the BIA school construction program and recommended that BIA: develop a comprehensive long-term capital asset plan to maintain, repair, or replace BIE funded schools; provide technical assistance to tribally-managed school construction projects to ensure projects are on time, within budget, and meet school needs; and develop guidance and maintain contract and grant administration documents for BIA- and Tribally- managed projects to ensure accountability. GAO reports that these recommendations are still open. Closing these recommendations is critical to addressing the poor conditions of BIA-funded schools and completing construction on time and on budget.

In 2016 and 2017, this Committee directed BIA to provide a report on a comprehensive, long-term planning approach for every campus and component education facility. We still have not received this report.

I understand BIA is developing a new site assessment pilot program from which BIA will select school facilities and campuses for major repair or replacement based on data from BIA’s facility condition index. This new process may or may not meet the GAO recommendations and this Committee’s directive to provide a comprehensive approach, but I can’t tell because BIA has not provided the requested report to us!

In addition, when I first heard about this proposal, I immediately thought of the old BIA school construction lists where BIA selected schools, but tribes had no input and there was no transparency on the criteria for being selected.

I’m extremely concerned about the lack of tribal consultation on this pilot program. If Indian tribes are not consulted, it will not succeed. I know we all agree that Native American students deserve the best education possible. To accomplish this, we must provide safe, modern buildings where students are not exposed to extreme weather conditions and other dangers inside school facilities.

Today’s hearing will give us a better understanding of the BIE school construction process – from how, when, and by whom information is input into the facilities condition index system to the status of the GAO recommendations and Congressional directives from 2016 and 2017.

This morning Mr. Jason Freihage, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who has direct line authority over the school construction process at the Department of the Interior, will be testifying to assist us in gathering the information we need to meet our trust responsibility to Native children. Mr. Freihage was promoted to this position earlier this year. Congratulations to you sir. 

I understand this is your first time ever testifying before Congress so I look forward to hearing from you and discussing the plan for addressing the pressing challenges facing the Bureau.

116th Congress