In the cramped, musty basement of the Loneman School, Frank Rapp points at two threats to the hundreds of students who attend classes upstairs.
They are the ancient boilers that strain to keep the school warm during harsh prairie winters. Dan Two Bulls, the school custodian, must trudge down the narrow concrete stairs twice a day, 365 days a year, to turn them on and off, Rapp said.
"What if he breaks his leg or has a heart attack?" asked Rapp, the school president. "If something happens to him, it might blow."
Rapp's predicament is not unique to his school, which serves Oglala Sioux students on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
America's tribal schools are crumbling because of budget cuts, inefficiency and neglect by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress, Rapp and other tribal school leaders said. The nation's 187 BIA-funded schools have an estimated backlog of $650 million to $800 million in needed repairs.
"We're lucky right now. But one day, we're going to kill the kids," Rapp said. "One day one of these damn schools is going to burn down."
Across Indian country, thousands of children are crammed into dilapidated classrooms with inadequate ventilation, plumbing and fire escape routes, officials said. Many school buildings have not met fire or safety codes for years; Loneman actually was condemned in 1991 before school officials won a reprieve.
John Tippeconic, director of the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs, called the crumbling schools "a major, major problem."
"When we have a $650-million backlog out of 187 schools, yes, in some cases we are probably putting some kids in danger, in unsafe conditions," Tippeconic said. "We try not to, of course. We try to meet the need as best we can. But many schools are older buildings, built in the 1950s. They're just wearing out."
* At Little Wound School in Kyle, a girl lost several fingers when they were slammed in a metal door the school did not have the money to replace, said facilities manager Jon Whirlwind Horse.
* While officials of the Fond Du Lac Chippewa tribe in northern Minnesota wait for a new building, 200 students are taught in trailers and a converted storage building dubbed "an accident waiting to happen," said tribal education planner Dan Anderson.
* Loneman School's plumbing dumped untreated sewage into a nearby creek until school officials complained to the Environmental Protection Agency to force a cleanup, Rapp said.
"Schools are grossly underfunded," an advisory committee to the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs concluded in 1991. That year, the bureau spent an average of $2,538 per student. The average spending for the 1994-95 school year fell to $2,515 per student.
In South Dakota, off-reservation public schools spent an average of $4,045 per student for the 1994-95 term. Loneman School got $2,907 per student last year, Rapp said.
The federal government promised to educate Native American children in treaties with the Sioux and other tribes. The Code of Federal Regulations requires the BIA to fund tribal schools at the per-student average for their state--a rule that is being ignored because Congress is not giving the BIA enough money for schools, Tippeconic said.
"We've got to steal from Peter to pay Paul," Whirlwind Horse lamented. "But you can only steal from Peter for so long before he's broke too."
Last year, BIA schools got 84% of the money they requested. This year, the Senate passed a budget that cut $31 million for BIA schools, including a $10-million cut in school repair funds and a $13.6-million cut in new construction money.
"Indian kids that attend BIA schools, primarily on reservations, really deserve a quality education like any other students," Tippeconic said. "But under the latest budget, they won't be afforded that opportunity. That's what really hurts."
Indian student enrollments continue to rise about 4% a year while budgets shrink, Tippeconic said. About 47,000 students attended BIA-funded schools last year, and by 1996 that number could rise to 50,000, he said.
BIA officials estimate that enrollment in Indian schools in the Dakotas and Nebraska will grow by 50%, or about 12,500 students, by the year 2000. But construction plans call for buildings to house only 560 more students.
Little Wound School, for example, serves about 900 students in facilities designed for 650.
"We're cramming them in. How do you expect students to learn in a place like this?" asked Whirlwind Horse.