Congressmen tour 'the school with the killer hallways'
BENA—Three members of the U.S. Congress toured the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on Wednesday on the Leech Lake reservation, getting a first-hand look at conditions that have made the school a decrepit symbol of how America is underfunding its Indian education system.
Reps. Rick Nolan and John Kline of Minnesota and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana took advantage of the congressional spring recess to tour the school and meet with local officials.
Each had their own reason for being there: Nolan, a Democrat, represents the Leech Lake band as part of the Eighth Congressional District. Kline, a Republican, chairs the House committee on education and workforce issues. Rokita, also a Republican, chairs the House subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary school education.
However, the three of them were united across party lines in condemning the situation at the school and calling for action.
"The conditions, I found to be actually worse than what I had been led to believe," Kline said. "Truly horrific conditions. We need to figure out how it is that you're able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on maintenance for a building that was never supposed to be a school building, but you can't replace the building."
They aren't the first from the federal government to do so, either: U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn visited the school in August, after U.S. Sen. Al Franken told Jewell about the school.
Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig is one of 63 schools listed in poor condition on the nationwide Bureau of Indian Affairs list as of 2014, out of 183 Bureau of Indian Education schools that receive BIA funding.
The tour of the high school, led by school safety officer John Parmeter, quickly made apparent why people are so upset about the state of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig. A former "pole barn"—a maintenance and storage shed made out of thin corrugated metal—the building was pressed into service as a high school in 1984.
There can be power outages two or three times a week, and the students have to be careful not to run too many computers in the computer lab at once, for fear of popping a circuit breaker. They can't conduct experiments in the science lab, since it previously was an auto repair and storage facility. In the 1990s, a gas explosion blew a section of the building clear into the parking lot.
Parmeter said when emergency service personnel conducted active-shooter and other disaster drills at the high school, they dubbed it "the school with the killer hallways" because of how difficult it would be to evacuate. Parmeter said the current evacuation time is a relatively sluggish 2 minutes 26 seconds, although the student body gets a lot of practice since they have to flee the building whenever the wind gusts get too extreme as the structure may collapse.
During a press conference following the tour, Kline called for a congressional hearing to help investigate which government agency was responsible for the school conditions.
"We need to dig to the bottom of that," he said. "At the end of the process, there's somebody, some agency, that needs to stand up and say, 'We're going to take care of that.'"
However, Rokita cautioned there was a limit to how much the three could do in the House from the committees they sit on.
"Our jurisdiction here over this issue ... it's minimal, frankly," he said. "We're here because we care. We put our signatures on letters, all of us, and we continue to stand to fight for this, regardless of how limited our jurisdiction is over this. I'm not sure that jurisdiction can change in the near-term, but we're going to fight for it, we're going to bring attention to this, and we're going to illuminate the issue."
In March, Kline called on congressional appropriators for an additional $60 million in funding for Indian schools across the BIE system.
Nolan said the pressure they and other officials had applied was making it more likely for Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig to get additional federal funding.
"We've heard informally as a result of the efforts that are being put forth here that ... the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is near the top of the list, and that they're reviewing those lists," he said. "I think we have reason to be at least cautiously optimistic."
In addition to touring the problematic high school, Kline and Nolan also had some lighter fare on their tour: They examined spots where students were learning how to make maple syrup and a birch-bark canoe, and took in a traditional drum performance. They also met with a group of first-and second-graders inside the acclaimed Niigaane cultural-immersion school on the campus. Niigaane students had sent "get well soon" letters to Nolan's daughter Katherine, who is battling lung cancer.
Rokita joined up with the group later, since he was delayed by weather while flying from Indiana.