Native Sun News: Troubled reservation school work back on track

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

A photo from 2012 shows unfinished construction of the new Lame Deer Elementary School in Montana. Photo from Spectrum Group Architects / Facebook

Troubled school construction project moves forward
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– If all goes as planned under new approach to a Lame Deer Elementary School expansion project funded by Impact Aid, students at Northern Cheyenne will start next school year in new classrooms, dine in a new cafeteria and their parents will be assured that their children have a modern and safe school. And, in early 2016, more classrooms, administrative offices and a commons area will be completed.

Stalled for nearly a year due to conflicts between the School, prime contractor, and architect, a $15 million Lame Deer Elementary School expansion project is once again moving along.

“There is a little bad news,” said Bill Parker, Superintendent, “but also a lot of good news – the project is well underway again and we are making good progress.”

Lame Deer Public Schools has received about ten million in Federal Impact Aid funds to construct a significant addition to the Elementary School to address overcrowding and update an aging facility. Started in 2013, the project was organized into two phases with the first awarded to DPS Construction, Boyd, Montana and Spectrum Architects, Billings. Scheduled for completion in January 2014 and underway for approximately a year that job included demolition of a portion of the existing school; construction of new classrooms, restrooms, cafeteria and geothermal water wells. Phase 11 will provides additional classrooms, a commons area and administrative offices.

Disputes between the School and the architect and contractor developed. The school was concerned about unmet construction deadlines, quality of construction and project expenditures while contractors wanted more money. As reported in earlier stories, the School Board terminated contracts with both Spectrum Architects and DPS in the fall of 2013. Then, clean-up of major demolition was not completed. However, Parker pointed out that the local Bureau of Indian Affairs completed that work, saving the school $80,000.

BIA Superintendent Michael Addy said: “It was a significant safety hazard, especially to the children, so we had to help.”

Lame Deer School construction crew members: Top, Justin Small (Northern Cheyenne), unknown worker; standing, Jonathan Cody (Navajo) and Dan Arnold, Superintendent. Photo by Clara Caufield / A Cheyenne Voice

The school has since settled with Spectrum Architects while differences with DPS were mediated, an unsuccessful contractual obligation. Following that, DPS filed suit in state court. The school has responded while gathering evidence to substantiate claims related to incomplete and unsafe construction, information also provided to the bonding company.

Parker emphasizes: “We are prepared to do what it takes to make the school whole” and Board Chairman Robert McLean promises: “We will have a safe school building for our students.”

Resolution of the lawsuit could come from a settlement with the bonding company or actual trial.

Classrooms completed under Phase I are being utilized, but some students must still attend classes in mobile units and meals are served in the old gymnasium, transferred daily from the High School. The gym, normally used for school and community events is now portioned off for other uses.

Major Robinson, tribal member with architectural background is the Owner’s Representative, brought on board after contracts with DPS and Spectrum were terminated. Jackson Construction Group, Miles City, MT, a firm with successful reservation construction experience is now under contract as the new Construction Managers working under a new schedule and a fixed price budget.

As a first step, remediation work on Phase I is now underway, necessary McLean explained to correct deficiencies and finish uncompleted work.

“That includes some unexpected work and costs,” Robinson added.

Engineering tests showed that concrete footings were not poured under some of the bearing walls in the new construction and now must be built at an additional cost which the school must absorb and pay from funds other than Impact Aid. The roof is not under warranty because it was not installed by a certified roofing entity and also requires major repair.

“The good news is that we found these problems and will fix them. While failure of the walls and/or roof is not an immediate threat, it could be in the future when the building settles,” McLean said. “That is why we are re-routing students from that area as a safety precaution.”

Robert McLean (green vest) Chairman of Lame Deer School Board and Bill Parker, Lame Deer Schools Superintendent stood in front of construction rubble left on the school campus in May 2014. Removal was to have been completed in the fall of 2013. Photo by Clara Caufield / A Cheyenne Voice

Recently, the Lame Deer School Board approved construction subcontracts including one native-owned firm and will also approve all change orders, not the case in Phase 1. The School and Jackson Construction Group are committed to providing local and tribal employment on the project which pays Davis-Bacon wages.

Dan Arnold, Jackson Superintendent said “We want to keep money in the local community, hiring locals, especially tribal members.”

Locals have already been hired and Robinson encourages interested workers to contact him directly. Located on state land, the project is not subject tribal employment law, but Robinson says the school is working cooperatively with the Tribal Employment Rights Office.

The School is still $3 million short to complete the entire project, not entirely sure where that money will come from, mill levies not a realistic option for its limited tax base. One option is new market tax credits, used by other reservation public schools, including Pine Ridge. The first effort at getting those was not successful, but officials are optimistic when another round of tax credits is issued in June.

“This project is well worth the investment,” Parker said.

Parker is also encouraged after a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. The Impact Aid Discretionary Construction Grant Program, a competitive process seems ideally suited for the Lame Deer School project. Parker also said the Montana Congressional delegation still strongly supports the project and recognizes the responsible actions that the Board and Administration have taken to address problems related to the construction. If there is community interest, Parker said, a public meeting involving the architect, contractor, School Board, Robinson and other key parties can be arranged to answer public concerns and questions about the project.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Related Stories
Clara Caufield: New Northern Cheyenne school still needs work (9/23)
Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne school still isn't finished (5/27) Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation