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UPDATED: Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School is getting replaced

CASS LAKE -- Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School -- long a topic of local and national discussion for its poor conditions including bats in the roof and mold in the vents -- is getting replaced.

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Pictured from left to right are Steve White, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal representative; Carri Jones, chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird, formal Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal representative at press conference held Tuesday at Leech Lake Tribal Offices. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)
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CASS LAKE -- Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School -- long a topic of local and national discussion for its poor conditions including bats in the roof and mold in the vents -- is getting replaced.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Tuesday it is contributing $11.9 million toward the construction of a new school to replace the current one, which served as a bus garage before it was turned into a high school in 1984.

“After years and years, to have this come forth -- our students deserve this, our school deserves this and our community deserves this,” said Carri Jones, chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, at a press conference with band leaders at their headquarters in Cass Lake.

“I knew this was something of importance,” she said. “I set this as a priority, and we did our due diligence.”

Jones and other band representatives have been lobbying on behalf of the school for years, hosting visits by federal lawmakers and testifying before them in Washington D.C.

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Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig never reached the top of the government’s school replacement priority list, but lawmakers found the money in a federal program that was last used in 2011.

“All of our hard work finally paid off this morning,” said Eugene “Ribs” Whitebird, a former Leech Lake band representative who said he made the trip to testify in Washington four or five times. “I’m happier than heck.”

Leech Lake officials had been asking for $25 million to support the project, but at the press conference they didn’t discuss how the $11.9 million allocation might affect their plans. Few other details about the project have been released, and a message left for Superintendent Mary Trapp Tuesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Jones did say she already has drawings of the new design, and that representatives from the Department of the Interior will visit in the next few weeks to “celebrate” the funding announcement.

“We’ll let you know when we plan to break ground,” she said.

Federal lawmakers from Minnesota had been pushing to fund the new school, especially lately.

In February, eight members of Congress from Minnesota -- including Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar -- sent a letter to the Executive Office of the President, detailing the “deplorable” conditions at the school and requesting federal money to fix them.

“This has been something I’ve been especially frustrated about,” Franken said by phone Tuesday. “To run for Senate, to win, and to not be able to fix a school that is really a disgrace …. The teachers and principal are great, but the physical plant was a disgrace.”

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Franken said he visited the school once -- last year -- and helped convince Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to visit in 2014. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig drew national attention following the visit and was the subject of a story in the New York Times.

“I think this is a result of that,” Franken said.

The pole barn Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students call their high school was never meant to be one. It was a bus garage and an automotive mechanic school before it was converted into a high school.

In recent years, doors have come off their hinges, and water has leaked through the roof and onto the light fixtures. When winds reach 40 mph, students run to the nearby middle school, in case the walls collapse.

“It’s finally over,” said Steve White, a Leech Lake band representative. “We finally got what we wanted.”

Related Topics: CASS LAKE
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