Indian Affairs:

Actions Needed to Better Manage Indian School Construction Projects

GAO-17-447: Published: May 24, 2017. Publicly Released: May 24, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The Department of the Interior's (Interior) Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) does not have a comprehensive capital asset plan to guide the allocation of funding for school construction projects across its 185 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. Indian Affairs is in the process of replacing 3 schools and plans to replace 10 additional schools from a list of 54 schools that applied in 2015. However, Indian Affairs has not developed a comprehensive, long-term capital asset plan for the repair or replacement of the remaining schools in its portfolio, as required by Interior policy. Until Indian Affairs develops a capital asset plan, it risks using federal funds inefficiently and not prioritizing funds to schools with the most pressing needs.

Indian Affairs has not consistently used accountability measures or conducted sufficient oversight to ensure that BIE school construction projects are completed on time, within budget, and meet schools' needs. For instance, Indian Affairs does not always use accountability measures, such as warranties, to have builders replace defective parts or repair poor workmanship. Project managers, who are responsible for helping to ensure accountability, do not always understand how to use accountability measures because Indian Affairs has not provided guidance on when and how to use them to ensure successful completion of construction projects. In addition, Indian Affairs has not adequately overseen school projects managed by tribal organizations. Officials interviewed by GAO at three schools said Indian Affairs was not timely in reviewing new school designs, which resulted in project delays. For 49 construction projects completed from 2003 through 2016, the inconsistent use of accountability measures and inadequate oversight led to projects that took longer than expected, were sometimes over budget, or had to be scaled back to remain within their allotted budgets. For example, of the 49 projects:

  • 16 were 3 or more years behind schedule (see fig. 1).
  • 1 was almost 10 years behind schedule.
  • 10 were 20 percent or more over budget.

Further, the new projects did not always meet schools' needs, according to school officials. In one instance, Indian Affairs planned a dormitory to house 400 students while the school it planned could only accommodate 368 students. Until Indian Affairs develops and implements guidance for ensuring accountability throughout the school construction process and improves its oversight of these projects, it will have little assurance they are completed satisfactorily and meet the needs of students and staff.

Figure 1: Timeliness of Indian Affairs' School Replacement Projects Completed, Fiscal Years 2003-2016

Figure 1: Timeliness of Indian Affairs' School Replacement Projects Completed, Fiscal Years 2003-2016

Why GAO Did This Study

Indian Affairs is responsible for operating and maintaining 1,785 buildings at 185 K-12 BIE schools, including dormitory buildings for students, on or near reservations. These buildings had an estimated value of $4.5 billion in 2016. Many of these schools are in poor condition and have safety hazards. GAO was asked to review Indian Affairs' processes to fund and oversee the repair and replacement of schools.

GAO examined the extent to which Indian Affairs (1) has a comprehensive plan to maintain, repair, or replace schools and ensure the efficient use of funds, and (2) ensures accountability throughout the school construction process. GAO assessed agency data on the cost and timeliness of 49 school replacement projects completed from fiscal year 2003 through 2016, and reviewed contract and grant files for 10 school construction projects selected from schools that had recent or ongoing projects. GAO also assessed Indian Affairs' practices against its policies, design standards, and federal laws and regulations and interviewed agency and school officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that Indian Affairs develop a capital asset plan for school facility construction and repair, develop and implement guidance on how to use accountability measures, and improve oversight of projects. Interior agreed with five of the recommendations and disagreed with one. GAO continues to believe its recommendation is valid, as discussed further in this report.

For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that its Office of Facilities, Property, and Safety Management is undergoing a reorganization to establish a work group focused on asset management and will continue to work with the Office of Management and Budget to develop a capital asset management plan. Indian Affairs has reported a target date of June 30, 2018 for implementing this recommendation. We will continue to monitor Indian Affairs' efforts to implement this recommendation and await documentation on the actions it is taking to develop a capital asset plan.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to develop a comprehensive long-term capital asset plan to inform its allocation of school facility funds. Such a plan should include a prioritized list of school repair and maintenance projects with the greatest need for funding.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that its Office of Facilities, Property, and Safety Management will work with Indian Affairs' budget office and BIE to incorporate more details in its fiscal year 2019 budget justification on the specific needs at BIE schools and proposed and updated capital expenditures. Indian Affairs reported a target date of September 30, 2018, for implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to provide more details in Indian Affairs' annual congressional budget justifications on specific needs at BIE schools, including information on proposed capital expenditures, and updates on previous school construction projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that it had taken a range of actions, including establishing new oversight mechanisms, hiring staff with expertise in construction contracting, and administering training for contracting staff, among other actions to enhance the use of accountability measures in contracting. Indian Affairs reported a target date of February 28, 2018 for implementing this recommendation. It did not report taking any actions to develop guidance for its project managers and contracting officers on the effective use of accountability measures, which our recommendation specifies. We will continue to monitor Indian Affairs' efforts to implement this recommendation and await documentation that these actions are completed.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to develop and implement guidance for its project managers and contracting officers regarding effective use of accountability measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior did not agree with this recommendation because it said its draft design handbook-once finalized-would address the process for requesting design deviations but was not intended to include every situation where deviations could be requested. We reviewed a version of the agency's draft handbook in May 2017 and found it did not adequately address our recommendation because it did not explain how Indian Affairs would allow for deviations, including how deviations could be based on life cycle cost analysis. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that its revised handbook will clearly explain the process for requesting deviations from specific requirements for designing schools. We will review its updated guidance when the agency provides us a finalized version.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to clarify Indian Affairs' design handbook requirements to explain when and how school designs can deviate from specific requirements--such as heating and cooling systems with complex features--when the life cycle cost analysis demonstrates the requirements are not cost-effective or practical given such factors as the technical capacity of school facility staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that its Division of Facilities Management and Construction will develop a project tracking and monitoring process for all projects above a certain monetary threshold. Additionally, Indian Affairs reported that this office will work with BIA and BIE officials to identify common challenges that tribes face in managing projects and provide appropriate technical assistance. Indian Affairs reported a target date of June 30, 2018 for implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to improve oversight and technical assistance to tribal organizations to enhance tribal capacity to manage major construction projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that it will take several actions to address the recommendation, including developing guidance for maintaining complete grant files on tribally-managed school construction projects. Additionally, it reported that a new Interior policy requires that all new contract files from January 1, 2017, forward be maintained electronically, which will enhance Indian Affairs' ability to maintain contract files. Indian Affairs reported a target date of March 31, 2019 for implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure accountability for BIE school facility funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary--Indian Affairs to develop and implement guidance for maintaining complete contract and grant files for all BIE school construction projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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