Rats, bats and worse: Native American school left behind in Minnesota

Fungus, rodents, bats, exposed wiring and other hazards in a converted, metal-clad pole barn: that’s the high school for Native American students in Minnesota’ Leech Lake Indian Reservation, according to testimony to the House Interior Appropriations Committee by the school’s superintendent, Crystal Redgrave on April 8.

Minnesota’s Betty McCollum compared the proposal to build a school for 275 children of U.S. Defense Department employees in Guantanamo — price tag $65.1 million — with the total amount appropriated for all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school construction, repairs and improvements in Fiscal Year 2014 — a paltry $55.2 million for 183 elementary and secondary schools in 23 states, serving 48,000 children. McCollum’s press release said some of the BIE schools are in “absolutely deplorable” condition.

In Minnesota, according to local Bureau of Indian Education representative Everett Bad Wound, 743 students attend four BIE schools — BugONayGeShig School in Bena, Circle of Life Academy in White Earth, Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet, and Nay Ah Shing School in Onamia.

McCollum is the Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. She represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, which includes St. Paul. Her schedule this week was “packed,” so I couldn’t talk to her directly, but her office sent me Redgrave’s testimony. Here’s part of what she told the Congressional committee:

“Replacement of the High School has been a top priority of the Leech Lake Government and the entire Leech Lake community for many years. The Band has testified before this committee every year since 2011 repeatedly requesting replacement of the High School. …

“The School is located in Bena, Minnesota, and is named in honor of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig (Hole in the Day), an Ojibwe man who lived in the area at the turn of the century. He was revered for his commitment to fight for our land, our people, and for our children. The School serves nearly 200 Indian children in grades K-12. Some of the kids ride school buses for 2 hours one-way everyday to attend school. … The existing enrollment is a testament to the passion of the students, parents and teachers who are committed to strong academic achievement despite the significant deficiencies and health and safety hazards present at our High School.

The High School is in dire need of replacement. Unlike other schools in the BIE inventory, the High School facility was not originally built for use as academic space. It is a metal-clad pole barn originally intended to house an auto mechanic school and bus garage. When it was converted into the High School in 1984, it was supposed to be temporary space ….

“The facility does not meet basic safety, fire, and security standards due to the flimsiness of the construction materials, electrical problems, and lack of alarm systems. Further, the building lacks a communication intercom system, telecommunication technology, and safe zones, which puts students, teachers, and staff at great risk in emergency situations. The police and emergency responders have dubbed the high school building as “Killer Hall” because there is no safe room and an emergency would likely have tragic results. In addition, in high wind situations over 40 mph, the students must evacuate outside into the winds because of the structural flaws with the flat metal building.

“The High School facility presents a continuing threat to the health and safety of our students and faculty due to poor indoor air quality that contains mold, fungus, and a faulty HVAC system. The facility also suffers from rodent and bat infestation, sagging roofs, holes in the roofs from ice, uneven floors, exposed wiring, poor lighting, sewer problems, lack of handicap access, and lack of classroom and other space.”

There’s more, but you get the idea.

In contrast, according to McCollum’s press release:

“The proposed school at Guantanamo Bay would be stunning when completed.  It would have science labs, computer labs, art, music and band rooms; a gymnasium, counseling areas, food service, and health offices. The school would serve 275 children.”

Redgrave’s statement to the committee included thanks to Representative McCollum “for her tireless efforts to assist the Band and the School in addressing the School’s needs.”

“These children are all Americans,” said McCollum’s press release. “They all deserve to have the ability to learn in safe, healthy, and modern facilities that reflect how we as a Congress and a country value our children.”

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One response to “Rats, bats and worse: Native American school left behind in Minnesota

  1. Pingback: Beyond Pre-K: What MN schools need from the special session | News Day

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