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Building Hope by Building Schools

For two decades, the Dakota Consortium of Treaty Schools (DACTS), has worked with our friends in Congress to address the sad state of school facilities in Indian country.

There are 15 tribes from Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota represented by our member schools: Oglala Sioux, the Omaha Nation, Santee Sioux, Winnebago, Spirit Lake Sioux, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Mandan, Hadatsa & Arikira Nations, the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Yankton Sioux, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Flandreaux Sioux, and Sisseton Wapheton Sioux.

The fact is that for many Native kids, the poor condition of their school houses makes getting a solid education all the more difficult. Leaky roofs and shabby school construction make life in the cold, harsh winters on the Plains difficult if not impossible.

Over this period, the executive and legislative branches made strong, bi-partisan efforts to get new school facilities built by appropriating additional funds to the Interior Department. From fiscal years 2001 to 2009, $2.013 billion in new federal spending was appropriated for replacement school construction and facilities improvement and repair. From 2009 through fiscal year 2014, $708 million was appropriated for these two accounts.

DACTS and its members are grateful for the spike in federal spending which resulted in additional schools being built and renovated. We also proposed a creative way to finance more new school construction in a much faster way. The proposal was to authorize Indian tribes to issue bonds to raise capital and, in turn, use the funds raised to build new schools. Unlike traditional bond financing, the purchasers of these bonds would receive federal tax credits they would use to offset items of income.

In the early 2000s, current Senators Tim Johnson, Thad Cochran, and Patty Murray and former Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Tom Daschle introduced legislation to authorize the establishment of this bonding mechanism. While these bills were not enacted, they laid the groundwork for success which came in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the Stimulus Act.

The Stimulus Act contained authority for Indian tribes to issue $400 million in tax credit allocation for 2009 and 2010. While no tribe took advantage of the program, DACTS is reliably informed by congressional offices that this $400 million remains available for use. One thing the Stimulus Act bond program did not include was an escrow account to be used by the issuing tribes to repay principal once the bonds are issued.

Like the readers of this article, I am frustrated and saddened by the lack of progress Congress is making on any number of Indian country priorities. With the $400 million in tax credit authority still on the books, all that is left to do is establish the escrow account. I believe the time is right for Congress and the Administration to make this a priority in the next Congress which starts in January 2015.

When she testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2013, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that the state of Indian education – student performance as well as the condition of Bureau of Indian Education facilities – is “an embarrassment to you and to us.”

After becoming Chairman of that Committee in February 2014, Senator Jon Tester issued a very strong opinion piece in this newspaper about the importance of Indian education. He said that “education is the foundation for sound life choices that increase economic security and helps us climb the ladder of success.”

These statements by the secretary and the chairman demonstrate that we have friends in high places, as they say. That, together with the bi-partisan, bi-cameral support Indian issues traditionally have enjoyed, makes me believe success and hope for new schools for Indian kids are just around the corner.

Jon Whirlwind Horse is president of the Dakota Area Consortium of Treaty Schools, a non-profit organization headquartered in Manderson, South Dakota.