Ojibwe band applies for funding to replace rundown, rodent-infested school

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American Indian band leaders in Minnesota have applied for federal funding to replace a school that's been described by one lawmaker as "horrific."

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe announced Wednesday it asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to replace the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Bena, a school that has been held up as an example of the need for investment in deteriorating Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools nationwide.

"Rotten flooring, poor insulation, rodent infestation, broken heaters, and substandard and exposed wiring are just the tip of a very large iceberg that makes up the overarching adverse situation at the BIE-funded school," the band said in an emailed news release.

The school's board says its request has the backing of every Minnesotan member of U.S. Congress, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Reps. John Kline, Tim Walz and Betty McCollum, among others.

Kline visited the school in April with fellow Rep. Rick Nolan, and blamed a "tangle of bureaucracy" for why reservation schools have been allowed to deteriorate, describing the conditions at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig as "horrific" and worse than he expected.

Some 78 BIE-funded schools have been identified as eligible applicants for replacement under the Government's No Child Left Behind Act, and applications will be reviewed in the coming months by the National Review Committee, the band said.

"We're looking forward to a speedy and affirmative reply from the Interior Department so our dilapidated school will be replaced," Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chair Carri Jones said.

Problems at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig

The school in Cass County, near the shores of Lake Winnibigoshish, has attracted national coverage for its rundown state, with the New York Times among the news outlets reporting on it in the past year.

The newspaper noted that with the Department of the Interior having limited funding and a huge backlog of repairs, it would cost $1.3 billion to restore all BIE school buildings to good condition.

It also noted that while students speak highly of their teachers, the school's chilly and poorly-ventilated classrooms are not conducive to learning, particularly in the frigid winter months.

Students fed up with conditions at the school and a lack of federal support staged a walkout in May of this year, as reported by the Bemidji Pioneer, as well as staffing changes. This led to the resignations of the school's superintendent and principal about 10 days later.

In an editorial in July, the Star Tribune commented that the spotlight thrown onto the Bena school has led to rare, bipartisan agreement on reversing the fortunes of ailing BIE schools.

It said that with the BIE drawing up its list of schools in most urgent need of replacement or repair, it would be "difficult to fathom" that Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig – located in a former pole barn – would not be a top priority.

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