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Where Republicans and Democrats agree the government needs to spend more

U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, center left, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center right, visited Maine's Beatrice Rafferty School in August of 2014. The school had originally been allocated $3.5 million for planning, but Congress upped the funding to $20.1 million in order to build a new school.

Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said she and a group of members, including Republicans, are looking for ways to boost funding for school construction on tribal lands around the country, even after Obama proposed pumping millions in new money into it.

Rep. Betty McCollum

Tribal school construction has been neglected for some time, so even though Obama proposed more than doubling its modest budget next year, it’s not nearly enough to confront the problem of broken down schools around the country. In Minnesota, the Leech Lake Reservation’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, typifies this — it’s housed in a used pole barn and students have taken to wearing winter coats while in the school. When winds reach 40 miles per hour, teachers move children to other buildings.

The administration sees Obama’s proposal as a first step of a multi-year effort to improve the system, but Indian education advocates are looking for more money right now to kick-start new school construction down the road.

Still, officials are heartened that the issue is at least on the radar — the Bug School, for example, isn’t funded in Obama’s plan, but tribal chairwoman Carri Jones issued a statement saying the tribe is “extremely pleased and grateful” that the president included new funds in his budget.

On Capitol Hill, funding for Indian education, especially school construction, is an area of relative bipartisanship: last year, for example, both parties agreed on a large spending increase for replacement school construction around the country, above what even Obama proposed. McCollum credits this to trust and treaty obligations the United States government has to tribes across America — the U.S. has a responsibility to support tribes, and it’s one Congress takes seriously.

There are still a lot of questions about what McCollum and others are trying to do, like how much money they’re looking for, and where it will come from. For now, she’s not getting into details, except to say that she thinks more money could be on its way.

“This is not enough money and we need to come up with a plan that would have tribal nations, American children who are members of tribal nations, going to safe schools, 21st century schools,” she said.

Minnesota's BIE schools

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School
Bena, MN
Facility condition (2011): Poor

Circle of Life School
White Earth, MN
Facility condition (2011): Good

Fond du Lac Ojibwe School
Cloquet, MN
Facility condition (2011): Good

Nay-Ah-Shing School
Onamia, MN
Facility condition (2011): Good

“We are extremely pleased and grateful that the President’s budget includes substantially more funding for BIE school construction and rehabilitation than in years past and that it begins to recognize the significant need in Indian Country for a safe learning environment for our students,” Jones, the Leech Lake tribal chairwoman, said in a statement to MinnPost. “We are fighting to give our community a new high school facility because our children deserve the best educational opportunities.”

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