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U.S. interior secretary tours deteriorating Native American school

John Parmeter (from left), security guard and grounds supervisor at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, shows school Superintendent Crystal Redgrave, Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Carrie Jones and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell the ice damage to the high school on Tuesday. Monte Draper / Bemidji Pioneer

BENA, Minn. -- As people in suits mingled outside the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Bena on Tuesday afternoon, an inconspicuous man walked up the sidewalk after the rain stopped just in time for U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn's visit to the school.

"Welcome to our high school," Benjamin Bowstring said.

Bowstring is the man who can tell you everything there is to know about the deteriorating building. He's the assistant director of maintenance and operations at the school, the bulk of keys dangling from his belt as proof. Bowstring's been with the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School for four years.

Bowstring can tell you about the ice sheets that fall off the roof in the winter, the flooding in the spring and the heat in the warmer school months. He can tell you about the mold and fungus and faulty HVAC system. He'll also tell you about the rodents.

"There are bats throughout the campus. We have bat houses," Bowstring said. "Due to protection of bats, we can't really do much to eradicate them."

Bowstring and John Parmeter, director of security and safety, led a tour of the facility.

A walkthrough of the campus revealed uneven, bubbling and rolling floors, missing ceiling tiles and doors off their hinges. In Mike Schmid's social studies room, a garbage can collects dripping water. Water also drips into the light fixtures throughout the high school building.

"We're here today because Indian Education is in trouble, in a lot of ways," Jewell said.

Jewell and Washburn are touring Bureau of Indian Education schools to help bring awareness to Washington. Awareness that the schools are in need of not only repair, but replacement. The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is now one of 63 schools listed in poor condition on the Bureau of Indian Affairs list. There are 183 BIE schools that receive BIA funding.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairwoman Carri Jones said the tribe had been sending letters to Washburn for the past six months. The band got his attention.

Washburn said the visit to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School was part of a fact-finding mission to see the facilities in person.

"This one's pretty bad," Washburn said. "Probably the worst we have in Minnesota."

Washburn, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, became assistant secretary for Indian affairs in 2012. Before that, he spent some time in Minnesota as an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 to 2008.

"The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is one that is inadequately serving the students of Leech Lake," Jewell said. "It is very clear in touring the facility that it is one that needs to be replaced."

Sen. Al Franken brought the school to Jewell's attention, she said.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School Superintendent Crystal Redgrave testified before the U.S. House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in April. During her testimony, she reminded the committee that the school is part of the BIE system and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has a contract with the BIE to operate the school in Bena.

Since 2011, Redgrave said the band has testified before the committee requesting replacement of the high school due to health and safety risks. Redgrave said high school students have transferred to public schools because of safety concerns and embarrassment about the school’s condition.

In 2013, a American Indian Education Study Group was convened to assess issues with BIE- funded schools. The Department of the Interior reports that BIE schools are among the lowest-performing in the country.

Don Yu with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's office was part of the study group. Yu said a lot of studies correlate the quality of a building with students’ learning experience. Yu added that the federally designed buildings’ one-size-fits-all approach isn't working.

The department has issued a secretarial order to restructure and redesign the BIE over the next two years. A facilities plan is expected within six years.

The BIA's 2015 fiscal year funding request is for improvement and repair funding rather than facilities replacement construction funding, causing what Redgrave calls another "band-aid" fix.

"The high school is beyond band-aid repairs, and the facility is unacceptable for use as a school -- much less as a school in the Minnesota weather," Redgrave testified before the committee on April 8. "The BIA needs to live up to its Trust responsibilities and replace the high school."

Washburn said it will cost about $25 million to replace the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School. Nationwide, it will cost $1 billion to get all 63 poor-condition schools up to acceptable condition.

School statistics

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was an Ojibwe man who was revered for fighting for the Anishinaabeg people, land and children at the turn of the 20th century. His name translates to "Hole in the Day." It is for him, the school is named.

About 200 students attend the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in kindergarten through 12th grade. Students are bussed in from as far as Bemidji and Deer River. Redgrave said Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig is an open enrollment school; nonband members and non-Native American children are welcome to attend.

The school was first accredited from the Minnesota Non-Public School Accrediting Association in 1978. In 1979, the BIA built a temporary school site seven miles north of Cass Lake and in 1984, the school moved to its present location near Bena.

The school was not designed to last as long as it has been used. It was originally built as an auto mechanic school and bus garage, converted into the high school in 1984. The structure is described as a "metal-clad pole barn." As the building stands now, it does not have a sufficient intercom system, telecommunication technology or safe zones.

Next steps

Before Jewell's visit to Minnesota on Tuesday, she visited the Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy Tribal Reservation of Pleasant Point in Perry, Maine, on Monday. She will be at another Native American school in Montana on Wednesday.

Redgrave is looking ahead to when funding is available. The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, Leech Lake community and architects have developed construction and design plans for a new high school. However, those plans do not include a space for the Niigaane program (immersion school).

Redgrave commended U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., for her efforts in assisting the band and school with funding needs. McCollum has been vocal in her support of funding native schools, remarking that the federal government planned to build a $65 million school for 275 children of Defense Department employees stationed at Guantanamo Bay, but Congress appropriated only $55 million for BIE schools nationwide.

"Funding overall has been a challenge. During the stimulus, 2010, a fair amount of money did go into Indian education. Why this school wasn't on the list, I don't know. I wasn't there at the time," Jewell said Tuesday. "I do know the priority list set back in 2004 did not include the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School."