WASHINGTON — Buried in the 4,155-page omnibus spending bill unveiled in the Senate on Tuesday, a single sentence risks going unnoticed by nearly everyone — except the first-term congresswoman who fought for that with all she had last year and a half.
“For an additional amount for ‘Educational Construction,’ $90,465,000, which will remain available until expended for necessary expenses related to the aftermath of the floods at To’Hajiilee Community School.”
It is the only article in the bill under a section titled “Bureau of Indian Education, Construction of Education”. It’s money to rebuild a K-12 school in TóHajiilee, New Mexico, an isolated community about 35 miles west of Albuquerque.
This school was built on a flood plain. For decades, walls of water poured down from a nearby canyon and drowned the campus. School officials here routinely pull children out of their classes and rush to get them on a bus to safety. Teachers scramble to move their cars to higher ground before they are swept away.
The constant flash flooding has left the buildings in a terrible state of disrepair. In March, the school was abruptly emptied and closed as it was literally sinking into the mud and its foundations were collapsing. The walls had visible cracks. Water flowed through the roof every time it rained. The high school students had nowhere to go, so they returned home, where their teachers somehow continued to teach virtual classes that previously involved hands-on work in science labs. chemistry, culinary arts courses and carpentry courses.
To’Hajiilee Community School has been neglected and massively underfunded since its foundation. It is one of 183 K-12 schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), responsible for providing education to more than 48,000 Native American children across the country. Among these schools, 86 are in “poor condition” and 73 do not have the money for the necessary repairs, according to IBE data from 2021. 41 other of these schools are in “fair condition”.
The school is not only substandard; it is a site that carries historical trauma. Like many BIE schools today, To’Hajiilee Community School is also a former residential school. For about 150 years, the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of indigenous children going to these schools to try to assimilate them into white culture. As a result, these children suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Some are dead. Others have disappeared.
Despite so few resources, To’Hajiilee Community School has still managed to thrive culturally, said Rep. Melanie Stansbury (DN.M.), who represents that district. School officials reclaimed the space and built a strong community around it, basing its activities on Indigenous language and cultural revitalization.
Stansbury has made it their number one priority to find money for the school since winning a special election in June 2021 to fill the House seat vacated by current Home Secretary Deb Haaland. And if anyone knows how the congressional appropriations process works, it’s Stansbury.
The lawmaker previously worked on the IBE budget in the Office of Management and Budget and served on the staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. For the past 18 months, Stansbury has aggressively, even desperately, lobbied anyone who has a say in the funding of tribal schools – homeowners, congressional leaders, White House officials, Ministry of Interior officials – to fund the To’Hajiilee Community School adequately.
Over the past few weeks, as lawmakers have scrambled to put their priorities into the $1.7 trillion year-end spending bill, Stansbury says she’s spent “every day, all day,” to sue House and Senate owners, Hill leaders, and administration officials to include money for the school. She didn’t know until Tuesday morning, when the bill was released and she pored over its text, that her efforts had paid off.
“We worked so hard on this, for so long, I literally woke up…and cried,” Stansbury told HuffPost on Tuesday in a moving interview. “I invested everything I had to get funds for this school. The To’Hajiilee community is only a short distance from Albuquerque, but the people there have so many needs, and the community has not met their needs and priorities. It’s so huge for this community.
“Even if I don’t accomplish anything else during my time in Congress,” she added, “it’s the most important thing I could have imagined that we could get into the budget.”
To’Hajiilee school officials have already been given permission to rebuild their school on another site above the floodplain. This means that as soon as the omnibus bill is signed into law, principals can immediately move forward with the architectural design and construction of the new facility. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday and is now heading to the House.
“This is the biggest news for the people of To’Hajiilee, a new school in a long time,” To’Hajiilee Navajo Chapter vice president Nora Morris said in a statement. “Thank you so much on behalf of our children as we know they will be very excited and happy as we have all prayed for our children to be safe and warm in standardized buildings.”
Willinda Castillo, the school’s head administrator, said she had been looking forward to this day for years.
“For the past four years, the local school board and To’Hajiilee community administration team have expressed our concerns about flooding and structural installations. We can now say our voices have been heard,” she said in a statement. “Our teaching staff will now be able to teach without worrying about flooding issues. Our students will now be able to focus on their studies without interruption from school closure due to their school flooding. »
When asked why the success of this school was such a priority among other issues in his district, Stansbury said it was a win for the school, but it was also something bigger. These are tribes capable of charting a new course for tribal education.
“This is an opportunity for this community that has been ignored for so long, at all levels, to create a state-of-the-art school to provide an education for children for generations…that truly, truly reflects the culture and the linguistic and community values of the To’Hajiilee community,” she said. “It happened in tribal communities.”
The New Mexico Democrat added, “This represents a new era.”