LEECH LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION – For the students and staff of the dilapidated Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, hope arrived in the form of three U.S. congressmen Wednesday. The delegation, including Minnesota Reps. John Kline and Rick Nolan, promised to take action to improve a shoddy learning environment here.
“The condition was actually worse than I was led to believe,” said Kline, Republican chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee from Minnesota’s Second District.
Kline and Nolan, D-Minn., toured the high school, which suffers from twice-per-week power outages, failing heating and cooling systems, a leaky roof, exposed electrical wires, uneven flooring and a substandard sewage system.
The campus technology office is in a log cabin.
Kline sent a letter recently to House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., asking to meet a request from the Obama administration for $60 million above the current budget for reconstruction of Bureau of Indian Education schools. Kline’s committee does not have direct jurisdiction over Indian schools, nor does he appropriate money, but he said he is hoping to catalyze a deal by joining the Obama administration in a push for money.
Kline’s push with Republican colleagues comes after a Star Tribune editorial page series last year on the substandard learning environment at the troubled high school and other Indian schools. Now relief may be coming for Bug-Oh-Nay-Ge-Shig — a converted pole barn built in 1984 to house a vocational auto-body shop, not a school.
The federal Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, operates 183 schools across the country with nearly 50,000 students. More than a third of the schools are considered to be in poor condition. The graduation rate from BIE schools is the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
Kline said that while more money is important, he wants to unravel what he calls a federal “bureaucratic mess” at the BIE, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Education.
The help cannot come soon enough for students and staff of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, which is named after Chief Hole-in-the-Day, an important 19th-century elder.
The stories abound: The winter the furnace went out seven times. The fears of carbon monoxide poisoning. The buckets strategically placed to catch water from leaky ceilings. The school board meeting interrupted by a squirrel.
Bonita Desjarlais, an art teacher whose students paint striking Ojibwe landscapes, said the conditions are “disillusioning, disheartening.” Her art room is small and lacks natural light, adequate storage and electric capacity.
Still, Desjarlais and other teachers and students make the best of it.
In a roundtable discussion with Kline and Nolan, students like Tyler Randberg and James Robinson said they attend Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School despite the conditions because they feel at home in a place dedicated to protecting their cultural heritage.
Niigaane Ojibwe Immersion School, for instance, is aimed at reviving the Ojibwe language. The congressmen visited a trailer classroom of elementary students, nearly all of whom arrive as English speakers but receive 95 percent of their instruction in Ojibwe.
Later, the group examined a birch bark canoe under construction and a wood-fired boiling pot of sap that would become maple syrup.
For all the school spirit, however, the building’s limitations stuck out most for the visitors.
The small science lab is not safe enough to conduct chemistry experiments.
“It’s a science lab you can’t use,” Kline said, incredulous. Later he said the visitors would hesitate to send their own children there.
Nolan spoke about the importance of architecture and what it should, but doesn’t currently convey to students — that education is important.
School Superintendent Crystal Redgrave said enrollment would bloom with a proper school: “If we had the facility and the structure, most native parents would want to preserve the culture and language for their children.”
Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., joined the delegation at the end of the tour. The chairman of the subcommittee on K-12 education and Kline said they would hold a hearing on the struggles of Indian schools.
Because the schools are run by the Department of the Interior, their committee does not have direct jurisdiction, but they said they would push the issue anyway.
Still, relief is some ways off. Many Republicans in Congress were elected on a platform of fiscal flintiness.
BIE lost $48 million to so-called sequestration cuts out of a budget of some $380 million in 2013-14, according to Education Week. School improvement funding was cut to zero in 2013 and 2014.
The budget has begun to recover, with the Obama administration requesting significant increases in both operational and school improvement money.
Still, the $60 million extra asked of congressional appropriators for BIE school improvement, which would bring the total to $130 million, is a drop in the bucket: An estimated $1.3 billion is needed to fix the physical structures of Indian schools.