Skip to main content

Crow Creek Schools Closer to Shutdown

PIERRE, S.D. - The Crow Creek school system was given another scare that at
first glance appeared to be the final blow that would close the schools.

Near panic set in when an April 27 letter was sent from the South
Department of Public Safety that "strongly recommends discontinued use" of
buildings occupied by both high school and elementary school students.

Engineering reports from independent, BIA and state fire inspectors
recommended either closure of the buildings or elaborate remodeling to some
of the buildings. The middle school was condemned and demolished two years
ago. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, in serious debt, is not financially
capable of resolving the school situation on its own, said tribal chairman
Duane Big Eagle.

Big Eagle received the letter on May 5, and was certain that it meant an
immediate closure. According to Scott Raue, school administrator, and Paul
Merriman, fire code specialist, the letter was not an order for closure,
but it could ultimately work as support for Crow Creek's argument with the
BIA for immediate financial attention.

"The letter was an opinion. They have no jurisdiction on trust land to shut
the buildings down," Raue said.

"This is a good back up for the BIA that sends the word we have been saying
for five years about our problems."

In February the state fire marshal gave Crow Creek 90 days to upgrade the
elementary school building. The elementary school students are exposed to
asbestos, cracks large enough to allow rodents and snakes to enter the
building and a faulty electrical system. If Crow Creek was a public school
off the reservation the state would have had no choice but to order
immediate closure.

The most recent state opinion was based on past engineer reports that point
out structural problems with all the district's buildings, and the letter
was a follow up to those opinions, Merriman said.

"This is a piggy back on the other opinions. The situation is serious, it
is an issue of safety," he said.

The letter stated that a review of the inspection reports was conducted and
there was sufficient documentation in the reports to show the buildings
were dangerous and presented a "threat to life. It is the opinion of this
office that the level of life safety in these buildings is severely

Crow Creek schools are listed within the top 20 for replacement. The middle
school was condemned, torn down and replaced with modular buildings two
years ago. But replacement by modular facilities would not solve the
problem because they are temporary buildings.

It would cost between $30 and $40 million to replace the schools on Crow
Creek. To add the dormitory into the mix it would add another $10 million.
Most of the students who attend Crow Creek High and Middle schools are from
the Crow Creek Reservation, however many of the students come from other
reservations from throughout the region and need to be housed.

The Crow Creek schools could still meet with closure. The schools are
accredited and certified through the state, and condemned buildings may
have an impact on future accreditation. The state department of education
said it was not aware of the most recent events regarding the buildings.

"There is no next step. I'm speechless. We have to sit down with the South
Dakota education department and the fire marshal and look at the options.
Certification is in their hands. For Crow Creek it is too little, too
late," Big Eagle said.

He said that funding for new construction at Crow Creek could be considered
in 2007. Meanwhile, the students at Crow Creek will attend classes as usual
next year in buildings that are structurally and environmentally unsafe for

Alice Harwood, acting regional director for the Great Plains Region said
she was not aware of the latest development and would get together with
other BIA officials to discuss the situation.

The buildings at Stephan, a former Catholic school system, are 50 to 70
years old and are being held together with external rods and bolts. The
roofs leak regularly and a gymnasium used for community gatherings and
sporting events has been condemned and closed to more than 35 people at a

The school district intended to replace the gymnasium with a steel-framed
building. Big Eagle said that project would now be on hold.

Assistant Secretary Dave Anderson visited the school facilities in late
April and said that if anyone needed a new school it was Crow Creek.

Should the schools be closed in the future it would put a burden on the
surrounding school districts. The 650 students would have to spread out to
many different districts that are already crowded. Busing in South Dakota
is required only for elementary students.

Parents in the poorest county in the nation would have to find resources to
transport the students to other schools and in an atmosphere of higher
gasoline prices that could be devastating to families, Big Eagle said.