The national spotlight on northern Minnesota’s dilapidated Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School over the past year has yielded something all too rare in today’s polarized political age: common ground.
In congressional hearings focusing on the plight of the Bug school and other deteriorating Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools across the nation, Republican and Democratic lawmakers strongly agreed that conditions at these schools are unacceptable. Minnesota’s delegation — in particular, Republican Rep. John Kline, Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan, and Democratic Sen. Al Franken — merit praise for leading the charge. Republican Rep. Tom Cole has been a standout advocate for BIE schools as well.
A 2014 Star Tribune editorial series called on the BIE to launch a major construction plan to rebuild the 60-plus schools (about a third of those in its system) that fail to provide safe, modern learning environments. While the BIE is making welcome progress on such a plan, congressional budget gridlock threatens to derail funding momentum. In response, representatives from other states with large clusters of BIE schools rated in poor condition — such as Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota and New Mexico — must also wield their influence. Rising Republican political stars such as Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and John Hoeven of North Dakota, especially, could make a difference as their party, which controls both congressional chambers, makes critical decisions on spending bills over the next few months.
Earlier this month, BIE officials announced that they are putting together a new priority school construction list. The progress that the BIE and its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, are making was in evidence Monday in Minneapolis, where a training meeting was held for tribal nations wanting to apply.
It’s been over a decade since the BIE released a priority list ranking the schools in its system most in need of new buildings. Putting together an updated list is an important step, and meetings will be held around the country for other tribal nations. BIE officials hope to winnow the list of applications to 10 and then five by the end of August or early September. It’s difficult to fathom how the Bug school, which is housed in a leaking, 30-year-old pole barn, could not be on it.
Congress needs to do its part and provide funding. The recent sidelining of the Interior Department appropriations bill because of a dispute over Confederate flags was a serious setback. The bill specifically highlighted BIE construction needs and provided a relatively small but still significant funding boost. It also sent a strong signal to Congress in general that BIE school replacement is a priority.
The condition of these schools is a national disgrace. It would be even more shameful if Congress can’t take even this modest first step to improve them.