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Funding for schools gets recycled

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - A plan to finance reconstruction and repair of decaying tribal school buildings that has been on the table for some eight years has found new life.

The Indian School Construction Act is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Committee. The act would allow tribes to issue secure bonds and millions of dollars worth of repairs could be accomplished without financial burden on the federal government.

"We are playing catch up, but we have a more unified group together," said Frank Rapp of the Dakota Area Consortium of Tribal Schools, which represents 19 Indian grant schools in North and South Dakota

Rapp was with the project from the beginning when he, with advice from financial experts, conceived the idea to leverage escrow funds supplied by the federal government to alleviate the backlog of school construction and repairs now instead of years down the road.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. introduced the bill with a larger number of co-sponsors for this session of Congress than previous attempts. A similar bill will be introduced in the House.

"American Indians have been, and continue to be disproportionately affected by both poverty and low educational achievement. The fact that children are expected to learn despite inadequate educational facilities undoubtedly contributes to this disparity," Sen. Johnson said.

The plan allows for a one-time appropriation of $30 million to be held in an interest bearing escrow account. Instead of funding the construction projects directly from that fund it would grow, at present investment rates to between $60 and $75 million in 15 years.

That figure will be used to leverage the sale of bonds by the tribes and the bondholders will receive tax credits for their purchase.

"Improving education standards and infrastructure is a prerequisite to improving the quality of life in Indian country. Unfortunately, many tribes lack the resources necessary to accomplish this critical objective.

"The Indian School Construction Act will empower tribes to fund new construction projects and replace old, dilapidated schools," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Tribes will submit construction plans to the Department of Interior, and upon approval will be given the right to sell the bonds.

The beauty of the plan, Rapp said, was that neither the land nor the buildings would have to be mortgaged for collateral, the tribes won't be responsible for debt and the private market sector would be involved while the plan retains the sovereignty of the tribe.

The tribes will not be held responsible for any default, which removes any deterrent to potential investors. In addition, tribes will contact local engineers, architects and lawyers to draw the plans and proposals that go to Interior for approval. This concept will permit accelerated construction and avoid costly delays.

"This will also provide additional employment at the grant schools," Rapp said.

At the current rate of funding for schools the estimated backlog of $1 billion will never be removed. President Bush proposed a total of $292.6 million for school construction for fiscal year 2004, the same level as for fiscal year 2003. Of that figure, $131.4 million is for new school construction that will replace seven schools on a BIA priority list.

President Bill Clinton proposed a $200 million dollar appropriation for the construction of new buildings, with the $30 million put into the escrow account for leverage. That budget proposal was not approved.

In 1991 the estimate of backlog construction was $850 million and in 1998 the backlog was $758 million. That proved to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that appropriations over the years had not made progress in eliminating the problem. The committee approved the bond leverage proposal two years ago.

The renewed bill, was introduced by Johnson and signed by Senators Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.; Patty Murray, D-Wash and Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Other Senators who support the bill include Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Daniel Inoyue, D-Hawaii; and Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

Rapp added that what he would like to see in the House is at least a hearing in order to educate lawmakers on the issue.

"Our children come to school with this huge spirit to learn. The federal government kills that spirit by putting them in overcrowded buildings that have torn up tile, broken windows, and a lack of heat and cooling systems.

"We expect our children to appreciate and be thankful for their educator. What should they appreciate? A building that passes no fire codes, health inspections, or safety inspections? How do they learn respect and to appreciate anything when they are expected to learn in an environment such as this?" Rapp asked the senate committee.