STEPHAN, S.D. (AP) – The three-story brick dormitory at the Crow Creek Sioux tribe’s high school is a blackened hulk, gutted recently in a fire. The gymnasium has been locked up for more than a year after being declared unsafe. And a state inspection recommended a year ago that the high school building no longer be used.

Tribal officials say the entire campus should have been rebuilt years ago.

“Our children need to be educated, and if we have deteriorating, burned and condemned buildings to educate them in, I guess it just makes us feel helpless,” said Crystal Kirkie, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Council.

Around the country, Indian tribes are frustrated by what they say are inadequate federal funding and long delays in replacing aging buildings at the 184 schools supported by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

About 48,000 students attend BIA day schools and boarding schools on or near 63 Indian reservations in 23 states. The BIA directly operates about a third of those schools; the rest are run by tribes with BIA funding.

The federal government not only takes a long time to replace schools, but also fails to maintain them, said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

“Children can’t get good educations and a fair start for the future if they’re continually being put in these areas where they have to worry about their safety on a day-to-day basis or shift them from room to room depending on leakage or something else,” Johnson said.

The Bush administration has said the situation has improved in recent years. In 2001, 35 percent of BIA schools were in good or fair condition, with the rest in poor condition. But spending planned through next year will leave 65 percent in good or fair shape, the administratoin said.

“In the last few years, there has been a lot of money put into school construction,” said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling. In addition, the BIA has improved its procedures to try to speed up the replacement of schools, Darling said.

The BIA, which has a school construction budget this year of around $260 million, reported that funding was approved for 34 replacement schools between 2001 and 2004, and nine of those projects have been completed and opened.

In South Dakota, the Crow Creek Sioux have sought federal funding for more than three decades to rebuild the middle school and high school in Stephan, which serve about 420 students and are more than 40 years old.

But the campus is ninth on the BIA’s priority list of 14 schools due to be replaced, which means it may be three or four years before it is rebuilt – a project estimated to cost as much as $40 million.

The tribe’s top priority now is to find $2.5 million to build a temporary dormitory and kitchen before fall classes start at the school, which is situated in rolling pasture land just east of the Missouri River in impoverished Buffalo County and educates not only local youngsters but also some from more distant locations.

The blaze April 24 raced through the dormitory on a Sunday afternoon when most students were away. Seven staff members and students were treated for smoke inhalation. The fire was ruled accidental.

“Maybe this is God’s way of telling the Department of Interior they need a new school,” Kirkie said.

The more than 200 students who were living in the dorm managed to find temporary living quarters to finish the school year. And students from other schools donated prom dresses to help youngsters who lost theirs in the blaze.

But the BIA has agreed to provide less than half of the money needed to erect a temporary dormitory, and has yet to come through with the promised $900,000 that would enable the tribe to give a company the go-ahead to start making the modular dorm units for use in the fall, Superintendent Scott Raue said.

The tribe has moved the start of fall classes back three weeks to Sept. 6 to allow more time for construction of temporary living quarters.

“I’m running out of time,” Raue said Wednesday. “We’re just about to the end of what we can do unless we get some miracle. I just have to keep praying.”

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