‘I Bawled’: A Congresswoman’s 18-Month Fight For A Neglected Tribal School Just Paid Off
WASHINGTON — Buried in the 4,155-page omnibus spending bill unveiled in the Senate on Tuesday is a single sentence that’s likely to go unnoticed by almost everyone — except the first-term congresswoman who fought for it with everything she had for the last year and a half.
“For an additional amount for ‘Education Construction,’ $90,465,000, to remain available until expended for necessary expenses related to the consequences of flooding at the To’Hajiilee Community School.”
It’s the only line item in the bill under a section titled “Bureau of Indian Education, Education Construction.” It’s money to rebuild a K-12 school in TóHajiilee, New Mexico, a remote community about 35 miles west of Albuquerque.
This school was built on a floodplain. For decades, walls of water have poured down from a nearby canyon and drowned the campus. School officials here routinely pull children from their classes and race to get them onto a bus to shuttle them to safety. Teachers scramble to move their cars to higher ground before they get washed away.
The constant flash floods have left the buildings in appalling disrepair. In March, the high school was abruptly vacated and shut down because it was literally sinking into mud, and its foundation was crumbling. The walls had visible cracks. Water poured through the roof every time it rained. There was nowhere else for the high school students to go, so they went home, where their teachers, somehow, carried on teaching virtual classes that previously involved hands-on work in chemistry labs, culinary arts classes and in woodworking classrooms.
The To’Hajiilee Community School has been neglected and massively underfunded since its founding. It’s 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 around the country. Of these schools, 86 are in “poor condition,” and 73 don’t have the money for needed repairs, according to BIE data from 2021. An additional 41 of these schools are in “fair condition.”
The school isn’t just substandard; it’s a site that carries historical trauma. Like many of today’s BIE schools, the To’Hajiilee Community School is also a former Indian boarding school. For about 150 years, the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of Indigenous children to attend these schools to try to assimilate them into white culture. As a result, these kids endured physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Some died. Others disappeared.
Despite having such few resources, the To’Hajiilee Community School has still managed to thrive culturally, said Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), who represents this district. School officials have reclaimed the space and built a strong community around it, grounding its activities in Indigenous language and cultural revitalization.
Stansbury has made it her number-one priority to find money for the school ever since she won a special election in June 2021 to fill the House seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. And if anyone knows how the congressional appropriations process works, it’s Stansbury.
The lawmaker previously worked on BIE’s budget at the Office of Management and Budget and was a staffer on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. For the last 18 months, Stansbury has been aggressively, if desperately, lobbying anyone who has a say in tribal school funding — House appropriators, congressional leadership, White House officials, Interior Department officials — to fund the To’Hajiilee Community School adequately.
Over the past few weeks, as lawmakers scrambled to get their priorities into the $1.7 trillion year-end spending bill, Stansbury says she spent “every day, all day long,” dogging House and Senate appropriators, Hill leaders and administration officials to include money for the school. She didn’t know until Tuesday morning, when the bill was publicly released and she pored over its text, that her efforts had paid off.
“We’ve been working so hard on this, for so long, I literally woke up … and bawled my eyes out,” Stansbury told HuffPost in an emotional interview on Tuesday. “I invested everything I had to get funding for this school. The To’Hajiilee community is only a short distance from Albuquerque, but the people out there have so much need, and the community hasn’t had its needs and priorities met. It’s just so huge for this community.”
“Even if I accomplish nothing else in my time serving in Congress,” she added, “this is the most important thing I could have ever imagined that we could get into the budget.”
To’Hajiilee school officials have already been authorized to rebuild their school on another site above the floodplain. That means as soon as the omnibus bill is signed into law, school leaders can immediately move forward with the architectural design and construction for the new facility. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday and now heads to the House.
“This is the greatest news in a long time for the People of To’Hajiilee, a new school,” Nora Morris, vice president of the To’Hajiilee Navajo Chapter, 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 all prayed for our children to be safe and warm in standardized buildings.”
Willinda Castillo, the school’s chief administrator, said she’s been looking forward to this day for years.
“Within the past four years the local To’Hajiilee Community School Board and Administration team have been voicing our flooding and structural facility concerns. We now can say our voices have been heard,” she said in a statement. “Our instructional staff will now be able to teach without worrying about flood issues. Our students will now be able to focus on their academics with no interruption of school closure due to their school getting flooded.”
Asked why this one school’s success was such a priority among other issues in her district, Stansbury said it’s a victory for the school, but it’s about something bigger, too. It’s about tribes being able to chart a new path for tribal education.
“This is an opportunity for this community that has been ignored for so long, across the board, to create a state-of-the-art school to provide an education to children for generations … that is really, truly, reflective of the culture and language and community values of the To’Hajiilee community,” she said. “This has been happening across tribal communities.”
The New Mexico Democrat added, “It represents a new era.”
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