WASHINGTON – A dilapidated high school on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota is receiving nearly $12 million in federal money to rebuild after years of mounting pressure from Congress.
The announcement Tuesday means there could be a new school on the reservation by next year. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Superintendent Mary Trapp said construction will likely begin in the next six weeks.
On Tuesday afternoon, she called an assembly to share the good news with students and teachers. She said some teachers wept and the students broke into applause.
“We had some teachers crying because it’s been a very long time and a long process,” Trapp said. “It’s a true, true day of celebration for us.”
The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Bena received national attention — and a few congressional hearings — for what elected leaders called “deplorable” conditions. The high school wasn’t actually a school, but a drafty pole barn with broken plumbing, a bat infestation and a structure so weak that students were forced to leave if wind gusts topped 40 miles per hour.
The announcement comes after nearly a decade of pressure from local officials and the Minnesota congressional delegation on the Obama administration to pay for a new high school.
Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the appropriations committee, tucked in a line in a Bureau of Indian Affairs education construction budget for this fiscal year that specifically mentioned the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school. Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan has been asking the chairman for the money for more than two years. GOP Rep. John Kline held hearings about the school’s poor conditions and Democratic Sen. Al Franken has been aggressively pursuing ways through the White House to get the reservation a new school.
Many dignitaries who visited the school expressed outrage, including in 2014 when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made a trip to northern Minnesota to see for herself.
That day, Jewell had scheduled a visit to the school and another meeting in Duluth. She was so compelled to figure out what was going wrong at the school that she canceled her meeting in Duluth to spend more time on the reservation.
“This was not an acceptable place for kids to learn,” said Franken, who has been urging better funding for Indian schools since 2009. “It’s been a disgrace. It’s been something I’ve tried to get fixed or replaced for several years now.”
About 200 students attend the K-12 campus in Bena, which has received special attention because the Ojibwe children are hearing their own Ojibwemowin language in the classroom.
“Washington must fulfill its promise to Native American students across the country to provide educational opportunities in a manner that preserves their culture, language, and traditions,” said Kline, who has also visited the school.
The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School was among 10 Bureau of Indian Education schools that will be eligible for campuswide replacement, Interior officials said Tuesday. A Star Tribune series found Indian schools lagging behind other federally supported schools — particularly those funded by the Defense Department on military bases — in funding and upkeep.
“Our kids will finally have a safe environment to learn and grow,” Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairwoman Carri Jones said in a statement. “Years of hard work have paid off and I’m incredibly proud and excited there will soon be a new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120