Indian Affairs: Actions Needed to Better Manage Indian School Construction Projects
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.
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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of the Interior||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.||
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In 2018, Indian Affairs began to take steps to implement our recommendation. For example, in October, it issued a memorandum on facilities management communication and organizational roles and responsibilities and provided us sample agendas and minutes from meetings regarding construction. In early 2021, Indian Affairs provided documentation of its contract, process, and progress on completing a comprehensive condition assessment of all of its facilities to identify deficiencies. The agency now regularly assesses facilities on a three-year schedule. Indian Affairs also provided documentation of its new policy for its Education Site-Assessment and Capital Investment Program--the process by which it evaluates alternatives and prioritizes major school renovation and new school construction projects with the greatest need for funding. Similarly, it provided us its new policy for prioritizing and allocating resources for improvements and repairs. Its Facilities Investment Review Board provides Indian Affairs with an approval framework with established criteria for selecting capital investments. It meets quarterly to provide oversight of ongoing major investments and to prioritize future projects to be incorporated into a 5-year deferred maintenance plan. In September 2021, the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs approved all of Indian Affairs' new policies and processes for capital investment, and they were formalized in the Indian Affairs Policy Manual.
|Department of the Interior||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.||
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that its Office of Facilities, Property, and Safety Management would work with Indian Affairs' budget office and BIE to incorporate more details into its fiscal year 2019 congressional budget justification. In March 2018, Interior published its 2019 congressional budget justification, which included updated data on its capital expenditures. Interior's budget submission also included information on the status of school replacement projects in progress and school replacement projects completed over the previous 5 years. Indian Affairs also provided information on capital expenditures of over $1 million.
|Department of the Interior||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.||
In October 2018, Indian Affairs provided documentation that it had issued guidance to its project managers and contracting officers regarding the use of accountability measures. Specifically, the guidance for project managers outlined roles and responsibilities and clarified their responsibility for ensuring the use of accountability measures throughout the construction process. Indian Affairs also provided documentation that it had adopted a construction contract checklist to aid the contracting team and established multiple award construction contracts to streamline the contracting process and ensure that accountability measures are included in the contracts. Indian Affairs also provided formal training on construction and project management and conducted a review to ensure that contracting officers had obtained necessary training.
|Department of the Interior||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.||
Interior did not initally 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 would clearly explain the process for requesting deviations from specific requirements for designing schools in cases where the requirements are not cost effective or practical. In February 2018, Indian Affairs issued a memorandum that clarified its design handbook's deviation and exception request process. Specifically, the memo explained when and how the agency would allow school designs to deviate from specific building requirements, including how deviations could be based on life cycle cost analysis. This memo also provided examples of when such deviations could be requested and clearly outlined how the new process works.
|Department of the Interior||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.||
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. In September 2018, Indian Affairs provided documentation of templates it had created for regional Indian Affairs officials to use in communicating with tribes and agendas for training presentations. Neither of these documents show any direct technical assistance to tribes or address oversight. In May 2020, Indian Affairs reported that it had increased oversight and the availability of technical assistance by hiring 6 additional project and program managers. Indian Affairs noted that each project has a designated project manager responsible for grantee oversight and technical assistance. On a monthly basis, Indian Affairs publishes construction status updates for all school replacement and facility replacement projects. As of July 2022, we continue to monitor Indian Affairs' efforts to implement this recommendation and await documentation on the actions it is taking to improve oversight and technical assistance to tribal organizations.
|Department of the Interior||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.||
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In August 2017, Indian Affairs reported that it would 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 beginning January 1, 2017, all new contract files had to be maintained electronically, which would enhance Indian Affairs' ability to maintain complete contract files. In October 2019, Indian Affairs provided documentation of policy changes regarding maintaining complete contract and grant files. To improve the retention and availability of contracting files, Interior implemented a contracting system for all contracts subject to the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The system provides a central repository for all contract files, to include construction files. Indian Affairs also modified the Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) designation letter to include the COR''s responsibilities to maintain and preserve files related to construction contracts. The acquisitions office also adapted a construction contract checklist to assist the construction contracting team with contract file maintenance and closeout by reminding them of key steps in the contracting process. For projects managed by tribes, both contract and grant, Interior issued two National Policy Memoranda, requiring a central filing system and internal controls regarding file access. The memoranda included file folder structures to organize files.