Crow Creek school hopes to rebuild burnt dormitory


STEPHAN, S.D. - Three years ago the Crow Creek school district was informed
that its gymnasium was uninhabitable, its elementary school should be
vacated and the classrooms used by the high school were condemned.

Then, on April 24, its student dormitory was destroyed by fire.

When the buildings were condemned, Tribal Chairman Duane Big Eagle went on
a nationwide tour to convince the BIA that the district needed to be placed
higher on the funding list for rebuilding a replacement. His efforts were
too little, too late.

The middle school, condemned first, was replaced five years ago with
modular buildings and the old building torn down. The high school classroom
building is destined for the same fate, with modular units set to replace
it. Buildings were held together with steel rods that extended the width
and length of the structure and bolted on the outside.

The fire has moved many people to action. Now the state's congressional
delegation is involved, and Sen. Tim Johnson, D.-S.D., said he would push
for permanent replacement of the dormitory and other classrooms.

A gymnasium that brought community and students together for graduations,
sports and other cultural and social activities was scheduled for
replacement. That was Big Eagle's first priority.

The BIA notified the tribe it would release $2.5 million to build the new
gymnasium, but, the deal would force the tribe to choose between a new gym
and a temporary dormitory.

But on May 12, the BIA announced that $1.3 million would be released to the
tribe in addition to the $2.5 million.

"These funds will help the community rebuild and keep the students in
school this fall. This is an important commitment from the federal
government to help Crow Creek recover from this tragedy. I'm glad we were
able to work with the tribe and BIA officials to quickly deliver federal
assistance," said Sen. John Thune, R.-S.D. who toured the campus.

Big Eagle said the $1.3 million is only one-third of what is needed and is
not acceptable.

"We are disappointed in what the BIA offered. They offered $400,000 for a
new kitchen; that was acceptable, but this will not solve our problem.

"Now we find out we have to go to Congress to get the other $2.5 million
that was to be sent to us by now. We need the BIA to step up to the plate
and do what they can for out children," Big Eagle said.

The funds' exact usage is in question, and it falls far short of the
revenues needed to rebuild the dormitory. Temporary structures are
anticipated for housing, but permanent structures are the goal.

"I will be following up with the BIA to make sure they have a plan in place
to create a permanent housing facility. I do not want a campus with modular
facilities," Johnson said.

Crow Creek Superintendent Scott Raue said emergency money that was
requested two and one-half years ago is not the same as money needed now
for the dormitory.

With all the problems and stress that consume the school administration and
tribal officials, optimism is high that the school will open on schedule
next fall.

It will cost $2.2 million to construct a temporary dormitory and $8.8
million for a permanent structure, Big Eagle said. He does not hold out any
hope that the BIA will be forthcoming with any funds in the near future.
"If we don't have anything by August 22, then it's pretty much over," he

Big Eagle and Raue approached the state to help convince the federal
government of the severity of the school's problems. Crow Creek, however,
is in competition for shrinking funds with 184 other BIA-funded schools

Big Eagle, Raue and South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds recently signed a
joint-powers agreement that will allow the state to come onto the
reservation and assist. The state will assist in the clean-up and
assessment of the damages. Rounds also said that mobile units could be
available for use as offices.

A joint powers agreement is needed if the state is to contribute
financially for the Crow Creek School. This would also set a precedent
between the state and tribes, if financial aid was offered.

Any suspension of tribal sovereignty within that agreement is outweighed by
the concern for the students and the problems that the tribe and school
system face, Big Eagle said. He added that the joint-powers agreement may
begin a trend toward non-dependency on the BIA. He said the BIA may not be
beneficial to tribes anymore.

Help from the state, neighboring communities and especially the
congressional delegation may be Crow Creek's only hope. Big Eagle said he
received no encouragement from the BIA to help resolve this problem.

While the BIA continues to get failing marks on its management of school
facilities, insurance becomes another matter. The tribe, according to Big
Eagle, insured the school until 2003. The BIA said that the bureau was
responsible for the building and told the tribe to discontinue the
insurance. Big Eagle assumed the BIA continued the insurance, but they
didn't, he said.

Johnson and Thune toured the damaged dormitory and agreed that the BIA must
come forward to fix the situation. Thune said the BIA had consistently told
him the building was not a total loss. However, after a tour of the damaged
structure, Thune said it was his assessment that the building was not
repairable and would need to be replaced.

He said that the obvious solution was to work with the BIA to get some
buildings in place so the students could return to school in the fall.

Johnson, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said he would
meet with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and chairman of the committee, to
discuss the need for hearings on the safety of BIA facilities. Johnson said
while he and others have pushed for funding for refurbishing and rebuilding
facilities the Bush administration has been resistant to those efforts.

"This year, President Bush is calling for deep cuts in an already grossly
under-funded school construction budget," he said.

Johnson met and had lunch with the Crow Creek senior class, who, he said,
seemed to be doing quite well. "The kids are resilient and are looking
forward to graduation," he said.