'Tangle of bureaucracy' leaves Indian school decrepit

U.S. Representatives John Kline and Rick Nolan
U.S. Representatives John Kline and Rick Nolan visit an Ojibwe language emersion classroom during a tour of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, April 8, 2015.
John Enger | MPR News

Three members of Congress visited the Leech Lake Indian Reservation Wednesday to see firsthand the dilapidated state of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School.

School security director John Parmeter took U.S. Reps. John Kline and Rick Nolan of Minnesota and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana on a tour of the high school, showing them the 30-year-old pole barn where workers once changed the oil of school buses before the barn was converted into classrooms.

He pointed to where water comes through the ceiling when it rains and where moldy carpet had to be ripped up.

"Tell Kline what the local emergency management people call this building," Nolan said.

"Killer Hall," Parmeter replied.

Nolan, who represents Minnesota's 8th District, knew the answer because he's taken the tour twice before.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig gets a lot of visits from state and federal politicians because it's a good example of how poor conditions are in tribal schools. So far, however, the tours haven't yielded any funding to replace "Killer Hall."

In August, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited the school. She promised to lobby Congress for $25 million to build a new high school, but no money arrived. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn also got a tour.

A few weeks ago representatives from U.S. Sen. Al Franken's office came for a visit. Parmeter said in the last year alone he's given more than half a dozen tours of the flawed high school.

A school office uses a blanket to cover a window.
Behind Rep. John Kline, a window is covered with a blanket to hold in the heat.
John Enger | MPR News

The visit by Kline, who represents Minnesota's 2nd District, coincides with an effort to pass a $60 million increase in funding for tribal schools. As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Kline recommended the extra money. But despite the many official visits, there's a good chance none of it will get to Leech Lake.

Across the nation, the Bureau of Indian Education runs 183 schools, including Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig. More than one-third of those schools were listed in poor condition by a White House report released late last year.

The report estimates it would take $967 million to bring all tribal schools back to good condition. The new money would only pay for a handful of new buildings, and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Superintendent Crystal Redgrave said her school isn't on the priority list.

After his tour, Kline suggested why nothing has been done to replace the high school.

"We have a tangle of bureaucracy," he said. "We have the Bureau of Indian Education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of Education, and it's hard to get someone to stand up and say 'I'm supposed to be making these decisions.'"

In his role on the education committee, Kline seems to be in a good position to obtain more funding for Redgrave. But Kline said he holds a very small amount of official sway over tribal schools. Instead, he said the BIA, BIE and the Office of the Interior make most of the decisions.

Kline said he and Rokita will be initiating a series of hearings to determine who is responsible for the state of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig.

"We're going to get to the bottom of this," he said.

The mood of the visit was optimistic. All three congressmen were wrapped in wool blankets by school leaders. They listened to a drum circle and examined a birch bark canoe students are working on.

After the congressmen left, student Dylan Staples said he's not sure what to expect from their visit.

A senior, Staples has been at the school since 9th grade. He's seen a lot of politicians come through but still has to keep his winter coat on to stay warm in frigid classrooms.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe something will happen this time."

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