Minnesotans shouldn’t idly stand by as American Indian schoolchildren attend class in a cold, unsafe, broken-down pole barn. That’s why state policymakers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, merit praise and support for being at the forefront of efforts to rebuild the run-down Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
A state as economically reliant as Minnesota on an educated workforce cannot afford to have some of its most disadvantaged learners in a building that leaks, has rodents and lacks the technology to prepare students to lead productive lives in the 21st century. Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools like the Bug school are a federal responsibility. But the Star Tribune’s recent “Separate and Unequal” editorial series revealed that shockingly little progress has been made in building new BIE schools, even as the Department of Defense is spending $5 billion to rebuild 134 of its schools with state-of-the-art facilities by 2021. The DOD runs the nation’s other federal K-12 system.
It reflects well on Minnesota that influential state policymakers Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and state Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township (Itasca County), want to work closely with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to help the tribe build a new high school.
The spotlight on the school has created a window of opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. New state initiatives to work with the tribe and find partnerships to provide funding may provide the best chance of building a new school before the next generation of students must rely on it. About 200 kids attend class on the Bug’s K-12 campus near Bena, Minn.
Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Betty McCollum, have worked diligently for years to secure federal funds to help build a new Bug high school. The Leech Lake Band has also lobbied for its students. But a national priority on budget austerity, plus a long history of poor management by the BIE, has made new BIE schools a tough sell in Congress. At least $1.3 billion is needed to renovate or construct new facilities.
Federal funding for a major construction surge is unlikely. And because there are potentially more than 30 BIE schools whose facilities are considered in greater disrepair than the Bug school’s, it’s unlikely that federal aid will become available for the Minnesota school in the near future.
Gov. Mark Dayton is to be commended for sending a strongly worded letter to BIE officials in which he called the Bug school’s condition a “shameful failure of federal responsibility.’’ He also called for a working group directed by state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius to study ways to improve all Indian education efforts in Minnesota.
“The series [of editorials] captured the public’s attention,’’ said Charlene Briner, who is Cassellius’ chief of staff. “It clearly opened the door and spurred a deeper conversation with tribal leaders and Indian educators, not just about BIE facilities, but about how we can best meet the needs of all our Indian students.”
State legislation to fund a new school on the existing campus is also promising. The projected cost is between $25 million and $27 million.
Anzelc, whose district is near the Bug school, hopes to introduce a bill that would have the state generously pick up the entire cost of the project. He said helping the school is an important step to address poverty in Minnesota’s rural areas. “This is a high priority for me,’’ he said. “I’m going to move fast.’’
Bonoff, chair of the Senate’s higher-ed committee, is the lead author on a different and innovative bill to help the school. Her legislation, Senate File 105, calls for the state to provide a grant of up to $5 million to build a new Bug high school.
The funding is contingent on “nonstate sources” raising at least $10 million toward the remainder of the school’s cost. These “sources” include the federal government, which should swiftly capitalize on Minnesota’s generosity with its own substantial contribution and consider this a new model to help build schools in other generous states. It also could include contributions from Minnesota’s respected philanthropies. Responding to the findings in “Separate and Unequal,” Blandin Foundation CEO Dr. Kathleen Annette said the sum needed for a new school is a realistic amount to raise.
The need for state help is not ideal. McCollum, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, is concerned that state involvement could hurt the school’s chances of getting federal dollars and allow the U.S. government to shrug off its treaty obligations. The Leech Lake Band also said it is evaluating state efforts to help the school.
But last week, officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior, the BIE’s parent agency, told an editorial writer that state efforts would not hurt the Bug school’s chances for aid and that the agency welcomes innovative proposals.
The disgraceful state of BIE school buildings is evidence that the federal neglect McCollum is worried about has already happened. Building one school in Minnesota certainly won’t solve the BIE’s funding crisis. But it would help kids here. And innovative funding approaches could lead to schools elsewhere getting built sooner, too. Bonoff’s bill provides new opportunities for those who want to help instead of sidelining them until the federal government gets its act together.
It will likely take a series of actions to ensure that all kids in the BIE system are in facilities that reflect their potential. Efforts in Minnesota provide a promising start.