After years of disappointment, federal officials announced Friday that construction crews will soon start laying the foundation for a facility to replace the dilapidated pole barn on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation where kids in grades 9-12 currently go to class.
Doors to the federally run Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school will open this January. That’s January 2017, not 2018 or 2019, as reporters attending a news conference clarified in order to be sure they’d heard it right. The typical time frame for a new BIE school: three to four years.
The rapid rise of the desperately needed new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig building is a testament not only to a new fast-track process the BIE has launched but also to the relentless push for a new school by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota’s congressional delegation.
In an age of gridlock, the school’s list of political champions included Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, as well as Reps. Betty McCollum, John Kline and Rick Nolan. Tribal leadership also kept the pressure on federal officials to find a way to build a new school despite funding shortfalls and inertia at the BIE. There are about 180 BIE schools across the U.S., many of them serving remote reservations.
“Our students were what motivated us,’’ said tribal Chair Carri Jones.
A 2014 Star Tribune editorial series, “Separate and Unequal,” profiled the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school’s plight, as well as that of the 70 other schools in the BIE system in dire need of replacement. A funding boost of $63.7 million approved by Congress last year helped energize school construction efforts at the agency.
Federal funding for tribal schools flows from land treaties signed by tribes and the U.S. government, which assumed obligations such as education and health as part of these agreements, beginning in 1794.
The spotlight on the Bug school also helped push the Department of Interior, the BIE’s parent agency, to innovate and find new ways to build schools faster. The design-build approach to be pioneered at the Bug school hasn’t been tried before within BIE. Construction will be watched closely to see if it’s a model for other BIE schools in need.
The new high school will be added onto the current middle and elementary school building, which is in good shape. The cost of the project is estimated at $8 million to $9 million. Square footage is still being calculated, but initial estimates hover around 30,000.
Community members are clearly excited that the new high school will finally be built. John Parmeter, the schools’ longtime security director, broke down in tears after leading what he hopes will be the final tour of the old building. Parmeter for years has pointed out to visitors its leaky roof, mold, inadequate electrical system and faulty heating unit.
Shirley Young, a longtime school board member, said she is thrilled that the new school will be built in her lifetime, noting that the facility will serve children yet unborn.
Larry Roberts, acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, visited the school Friday with the Minnesota senators. On a day filled with emotion and optimism, he struck a welcome cautionary tone, noting that much work remains to rebuild a BIE system in which so many other schools remain in poor condition.
Franken agreed, but he noted that construction of the Bug school nevertheless is a step forward. “There are other needs all over the country,’’ he said, “but let’s celebrate today.”