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Crumbling school walls prompt Crow Creek leaders to seek help

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STEPHAN, S.D. - As a new school year approaches at the Crow Crow Creek Tribal School, administrators deal with an escalating concern the very walls of school facilities are crumbling while enrollments are increasing.

The district's middle and high school buildings, number two on the list of BIA replacement priorities some years ago, are much further down the list now, said Acting Superintendent Scott Raue. The project now ranks 43rd on the list of school facilities in desperate need of replacement.

"The structural damage is just unbelievable," he said.

Most people walking through the school wouldn't immediately notice the flaws because the buildings have been repainted and renovated for the school year. But, with a closer look, parents and visitors will find support walls separating from others. In some places, there are such gaps between the walls, one can look through the wall of one classroom into another.

Outside walls, in many cases, are starting to move away from the entire structure because foundations are shifting.

Steel beams were placed outside the high school for support, but school officials say they wonder how safe the buildings are for students when parts of the buildings might simply collapse. The roof of the building has blown off three times in the past two years.

Students and teachers face other problems with the older structures left behind when the school made the transition from a Catholic mission school to a tribal school.

An aging sewer system has canceled classes because sewage backs up into the basement at the middle school, as much as a foot of raw sewage at times, officials say.

Raue said a well-equipped computer lab in the middle school could be compromised because of the sewer backups and water damage, adding the situation requires almost constant attention.

The district invested in repairs and removal of asbestos at the middle school, which once served as a dormitory. It was converted to a middle school because of rapid growth in enrollment, he said.

"This is not on the BIA operations and maintenance list. We pay for everything. Any maintenance problems with this building or if anything happens, we have to pay for it. When there was asbestos in the building, it was declared non-usable.

"Hopefully next year it will be put on the BIA list again."

Even with the asbestos removal and cosmetic repairs, the building isn't going to be viable very long, Raue said, because it was built on shifting ground and the weakened sewer lines contribute to problems.

"Our sewer lines all through the basement of the middle school have corroded so bad we have to bring in Ree Heights Sewer twice a week to pump it out every two days. We've had to cancel school here a couple of days because the odor was so terrible," Raue said.

Sewer pipes constantly giving way place school officials in the position of dealing with problems with little warning.

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"Our kids can't breathe that and it is unsafe. On any given day it could collapse," Raue said. The maintenance crew is forced to constantly replace floor tiles that buckle. Some doors for offices and classrooms open or close depending on the day.

The outside walls of the middle school - more than 6 inches thick - have moved as much as 2 inches and the weight of the building, along with the shifting foundation, leaves huge gaps between interior brick walls. All are clear signs to school officials it is simply a matter of time before the building will give way.

The mortar between bricks is crumbling and ceilings are beginning to sag despite constant efforts to keep things in repair, Raue said.

He pointed out the need to replace ceiling tiles in a hall leading to the school district's gymnasium. They frequently buckle because of roofing problems. The roof has been replaced on the high school three times, he said.

Another challenge is finding replacement items such as the aging windows. Raue said the maintenance staff is forced to seal them shut or buy an entirely different type to replace those in disrepair or broken.

Teachers preparing for the start of the school year Aug. 21 found themselves surveying classrooms for weaknesses and trying to get them repaired before students come to class.

Maintenance worker Leroy Chavez pointed out an area where he secured a support wall on the verge of falling down. "The B.I.A. just sent us a cost estimate for all of the needed repairs which was about $6.5 million," he said.

"Can you imagine sticking that much money in a facility that is falling down. It is unreal," said Tribal Chairwoman Roxanne Sazue.

"We're not putting our kids in an unsafe building right now, but if things don't start happening and improvements don't start taking place now, there could be a major problem within five years. Pointing to the high school, she said, "That wall may fall within five years.

"We need help ... from the federal government to start making an effort to come out here and help us work on getting new buildings. The time frame to build a new school doesn't happen overnight. It is going to take planning. It is going to take time and it is going to take three to five years to get a new school here. We can only do so much."

While Sazue agrees swift action is needed to replace facilities, she disagrees about the safety of the children. She voiced concerned that the buildings are not sound and there is a risk walls could collapse earlier than school officials think.

Keeping pace with the growing enrollment while trying to maintain the aging facilities is overwhelming for school officials and tribal leaders who are trying to provide students with small class sizes and up-to date facilities.

"We need emergency funds for trailers that we will be getting in 2001 to help with our overcrowding," Raue said.

The district tries to keep class sizes to around 16 students in a classroom, but with a growing enrollment, class sizes become larger. Last year, the district had to add a couple of teachers to keep up because parents are sending their children to the Stephan school because of its programs.

The district can board as many as 100 boys and 100 girls in its dormitories which were revamped three years ago. Much of the cost of renovations came from school district funds because the BIA wouldn't cover the costs for buildings it considers too old to renovate, Raue said.

Sazue said she is willing to write letters every week in an effort to gain funding for a new set of school buildings and hopes her recent efforts lobbying the South Dakota congressional delegation will pay off soon.