PHOENIX (AP) — The federal government released a report Monday that casts a critical light on the poor conditions of roads on tribal lands nationwide, highlighting the widespread challenge of getting Native American children to school during bad weather.
The General Accounting Office sent a team to visit 10 different school districts on three reservations in Arizona and South Dakota, where they spent time interviewing school officials and evaluating bus routes by riding with students to school.
They experienced unmaintained roads, bumpy rides, loud rattling windows and lengthy routes. The government team rode buses in May and June when weather conditions were fairly good compared with the winter months.
"We went on pretty typical bus routes and some of those typical bus routes were over an hour long," said Rebecca Shea, director of the agency team.
Earthen or gravel roads become muddy and impassible after being hit with heavy rain, snowfall or strong winds, causing students to be late for school when buses get stuck. Bus routes are sometimes 100 miles one way and require drivers to go 5 mph to navigate large rocks and ruts and steep inclines with no guard rails.
"Our mud can be up a foot deep, which causes our buses to get stuck, buses to slide. It can pose a safety issue for our students and our drivers," Superintendent Lynnette Michalski of Window Rock Unified School District said.
Michalski said bus drivers for her school district drive about 400 miles a day on unimproved roads.
School officials throughout the Navajo Nation cite inclement weather and poor roads as a contributing factor to school absences by students on the reservation, the nation's largest, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The report notes that the Bureau of Indian Education's schools generally don't collect data on transportation-related causes for absences, but it says bad roads are partly to blame for tribal students missing school.
The chronic absence rate for Native American students is 23 percent, compared with 14 percent for non-Indian students, according to data collected by the Department of Education.
Melvin Graye, lead bus driver for Rough Rock Community School in the Navajo Nation, said a snowstorm last week left a bus stuck in the mud, forcing students to wait for another bus to pick them up. Graye said it usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get a stuck bus back on the road.
The report says tribal roads often have overlapping ownership among tribal, county and state entities.
The federal government funds two programs to improve and maintain roads on tribal lands. Roughly 161,000 miles of roads on tribal lands are eligible for federal funding, but those programs have remained fairly stagnant in funding, which federal and tribal officials say is leading to the roads' deterioration.