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‘Dilapidated’ Tuscarora Indian School in line for major repairs

<i>The Buffalo News</i><br/>The Tuscarora Indian School on the Tuscarora Reservation on Mount Hope Road needs millions of dollars of work on its building.
Buffalo News
The Buffalo News
The Tuscarora Indian School on the Tuscarora Reservation on Mount Hope Road needs millions of dollars of work on its building.

By Barbara O’Brien

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    NIAGARA COUNTY, New York (The Buffalo News) — The average spent on repairs and capital projects at five schools in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District in the last seven years is $11 million apiece.

But over the same period less than $200,000 has been spent at the district’s sixth school, the Tuscarora Indian School that teaches Native American children.

“The inequity is stark,” said Niagara Wheatfield Superintendent Daniel G. Ljiljanich.

It looks like that’s about to change.

The elementary school serving about 100 prekindergarten through sixth-graders is on the Tuscarora Reservation. The school building is not owned by the district, but by New York State, which is responsible for its upkeep. The Tuscarora School is one of three state-owned schools on native reservations.

Usually repairs and improvements at public schools are approved by voters as capital project referendums. If voters approve, then the work goes to the lowest bidder and construction starts. But capital projects at the three Native American schools are the responsibility of the director of facilities in the state Education Department.

And there is one budget line for capital work at the three schools, plus 11 other state-owned schools serving children who are blind and deaf. The annual amount for the 14 buildings “has long been insufficient to meet the need, as it has been capped at $3.4 million for many years,” according to the state Board of Regents summary of its budget requests.

“In our case, we needed brick repair to that building and roof repair for a number of years,” Ljiljanich said. “The brick repairs keep getting pushed back because at one of the other buildings, there’s a bigger emergency, or there’s a situation where it’s even worse.”

But this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul has included $35.7 million in her proposed 2022-23 budget for repairs at the three schools. The Tuscarora School would receive $11.8 million, St. Regis Mohawk School in Salmon River Central School District in Franklin County would get $17.8 million and the Onondaga Nation School in LaFayette Central School District in Onondaga County would receive $6.1 million.

The disparity in resources results in “inequitable treatment of these students as it relates to their health and safety and the updating of facilities to meet increased educational demands,” the Board of Regents summary states.

“It’s created a situation where the Tuscarora Elementary School has become really dilapidated, between the bricks – literally pieces falling out of the building, the roof repair needed because of water getting in in places in the building,” Ljiljanich said. “It’s just reached a point where we needed a lump sum dollar amount to fix the things that have been neglected for so long.”

The district’s building condition survey and annual visual inspections of the school revealed major repairs needed, including exterior brick work, a new roof, windows and doors, parking lot replacement, concrete sidewalk and stair repairs and playground upgrades.

The superintendent said if the funding is included in the final budget approved by the State Legislature, work could start next year. He said he’s hopeful, because the initiative has received bipartisan support.

But the lobbying is not done.

“We need to make sure that the budget line for these buildings that are owned by New York State is increased to a rate that they can fix these problems as they occur, like what is able to be done in all our other buildings,” Ljiljanich said.

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