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Better late than never: Leech Lake’s ‘Bug’ school gets $12M for repairs

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The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig lower school, above, won’t be affected by this funding, which will be used to replace the high school building.

WASHINGTON — After decades of disrepair and neglect, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is finally getting some of the help that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and its allies in Washington, have long called for.

On Tuesday, the Department of the Interior announced it will release $11.9 million to partially replace the so-called “Bug school,” which for years has been identified as not only one of the country’s lowest-performing tribal schools, but one of its most poorly maintained.

Recent reports of the school’s condition prompted visits from top officials, including Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and led many to wonder how a place like it could exist in the United States. Students there are faced with a learning environment that includes rodents, toxic mold, sewage backup, and lack of adequate insulation from harsh northern Minnesota winters.

The Bureau of Indian Education, which administers 184 schools nationwide, selected the Bug school to receive funds to replace its high school building, which was converted from a barn in 1984 and was never meant to house students for a prolonged period. The school, which is home to around 200 students in grades K-12, houses lower grades in a more modern building.

Delegation mobilizes for the school

The Bug school is located on the reservation of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, just southwest of Bemidji, but it inspired advocacy from members of Congress across the state.

In February, the entire Minnesota delegation sent a letter to the White House that called for funding to repair and replace the Bug school and other troubled BIE schools, and several Minnesota members have visited it.

Sen. Al Franken, who serves on the Senate’s Indian Affairs and Education panels, told MinnPost that this is a big day for the Bug school and its advocates. He said the funds will finally allow authorities “take something in disgraceful shape… and make a modern facility out of it.”

Franken has pushed for improvements to the Bug school since early in his Senate tenure, and said that finding the money has taken so long “because we underfund Indian schools. It takes so long because we underfund Indians.” He added that Secretary Jewell “would not see me without hearing about this, and I think she finally wanted to shut me up.”

Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the federal Indian Affairs budget, has also worked on the Bug school issue for years. The St. Paul Democrat credited her subcommittee for restoring, for the first time in five years, the line item in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget that enabled Interior to release the $11.9 million for the Bug school.

House Committee on Education & the Workforce chair and Second District Rep. John Kline has also sought to draw attention to BIE schools. Kline visited the Bug school last year, convened two hearings, and sent a letter to Jewell in March asking for details on plans to improve Indian schools. He said he was “pleased the Administration fulfilled my request that the federal government honor its commitment to those students and families in northern Minnesota.”

Rep. Rick Nolan, whose 8th Congressional District includes the Leech Lake Reservation, said in a statement that he was “gratified and delighted” at the news. “This is real and tangible progress in our fight to send the message to our students in Indian Country that their education and their success in life are important to all of us,” he said.

Still more work to be done

While Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed, lawmakers emphasized that this appropriation is only part of the process, and that there is more work to be done for the Bug school and for tribal schools around the country.

Previously, Indian education advocates have said it would take $23 million to get the Bug school to an acceptable point. There will need to be continued commitment from the federal government, lawmakers say, to get the Bug school and other tribal schools to the standard expected elsewhere in the country.

Franken suggested the announcement shouldn’t be interpreted as an indication of an increased commitment from the federal government to allocate more funds to struggling tribal schools.

“To me, this might be, unfortunately, sort of a stand-alone, sui generis kind of appropriation,” he said.

For longtime advocates, though, a win is a win. “After so many years,” Franken said, “we are finally able to claim a victory.”

Update: This article has been updated to add a statement from Rep. John Kline.

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