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Audit finds school construction problems at BIA
Monday, April 12, 2004

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has improved in its school replacement and repair program but the agency needs to be more accountable for its spending, an internal audit concluded.

Since 1998, Congress has allocated $680 million to fix and replace aging BIA schools, many of which date to the 1940s and 1950s. To determine whether the money is being spent wisely, the Department of Interior's inspector general reviewed the program for a recent report.

Investigators commended the BIA for generally following an 1999 improvement plan that was drafted due to concerns over misspending. Yet they found several occasions where tribes received millions of dollars "far in excess of current needs."

The Navajo Nation, for example, received $50 million for two school projects that were delayed considerably. The Hopi Tribe received $18.8 million two years ago for a project but has yet to begin construction on it, the report said.

These large payments give the BIA little ability to ensure accountability, the report said. "Further, lump-sum advances can pose an inherent risk of loss or unauthorized use," investigators wrote.

But problems aren't entirely the fault of the tribes. The BIA's Office of Facilities Management and Construction took too long to review and approve designs for school projects, investigators found. As one example, the Meskwaki Tribe in Iowa had to wait six years for its designs to be approved.

"Thirty percent of the schools we reviewed exceeded BIA's goal of completing design and construction within 3 years," the inspector general said.

Even after new schools were constructed, the BIA allowed students to occupy the buildings before a safety analysis was conducted by the Division of Safety and Risk Management, the audit found. "Of the 20 schools we reviewed, 10 were occupied prior to DSRM approval, even though DSRM identified safety deficiencies that had to be corrected," the report stated.

School construction and repair have been a top priority of the Bush administration. Officials say they have requested more money for the program in the past three years than the eight years of the Clinton administration.

But tribal leaders have questioned the Bush administration's commitment in light of a $65 million reduction to the construction and repair account in 2005. "We should not penalize ... tribes who are ready to go and have their land ownership determined and their designs and construction complete in a timely manner," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Ed Parisian, the director of BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs, attributed the cut to delays on the tribal side. He said the White House Office of Management and Budget gave the program a poor rating due to delays in the construction process.

"We've only built four schools in the past couple of years and there are 25 in the design process," he said at a National Indian Education Association meeting last month. "We need to move it up."

The inspector general made nine recommendations to the BIA in hope of improving the program. In a February 24 cover letter to assistant secretary Dave Anderson, regional audit manager Michael P. Colombo said the BIA hadn't responded to the report. He had given the agency until March 26 to respond.

Get the Report:
School Construction Program: Improvements Needed To Ensure Safety And Program Performance (February 2004)

Related Report:
Improvements Needed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Process for Conducting Background Investigations of Indian Education Employees (March 2004)

Relevant Links:
Office of Indian Education Programs - http://www.oiep.bia.edu

Related Stories:
Tribal leaders denounce BIA budget plans as reckless (03/24)
BIA education programs taking $79 million hit (3/23)
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