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Construction started on new Wakpala campus

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WAKPALA, S.D. - Plans for a new school are posted in the doorway, giving hope to Standing Rock students who attend classes in a 1926 building near collapse.

Years of flooding from the banks of Oak Creek shifted the foundation and caused walls to crumble and buckle. A walk around the older building reveals bricks and mortar buckling and exterior walls which are separating from the building.

Since 1926, the school has been battered by 10 major floods. In 1997, water levels reached higher than 8 feet inside the school, causing excessive water damage and contributing to a faulty boiler system.

Officials of the Smee School District were forced to shovel mud out of the lower floors and mop up after the flood forced children from classes. When school resumed, kindergarten students were allowed to meet for only half a day in one of the rooms to minimize exposure to its intense odor.

Local residents waited for years for a new building, but were told no funding was available through the BIA because it was a public school, Board President Robert Tiger said.

In the past few years the enrollment has grown from about 130 students to about 200 because of open enrollment, adding students from the Kenei and McLaughlin areas, and the present school is overcrowded, Tiger said. The new school will accommodate at least 300 students.

Getting the money for a new campus required a great deal of effort, he said. Even though the Wakpala school's foundation was crumbling, school officials had to launch a lobbying effort and a letter-writing campaign to raise funds, Tiger said.

School officials made trips to the nation's capital to seek funding sources and support from key congressional leaders. They wrote letters to tribes which had reserves from gaming profits.

The board had set aside more than $1 million for the $8 million campus which will include ample classrooms for more than 300 students, new gymnasium, auditorium, Head Start center, public library and space for community events.

The U.S. Department of Education committed a $1.3 million grant to the project in July of last year along with funds from the state of South Dakota and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community of Minnesota which donated more than $250,000 toward the project.

In October, 1999, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was contacted by Smee School District CEO Susan Smit about the situation and he pressed Education Secretary Richard Riley to free funds to build a new facility. Eight months later, the funding was secured for the project.

"No child should have to learn in the type of environment that these children have been forced to endure for many years," Daschle said in announcing release of the funds.

"When water damage rots out entire floors, and raw sewage has stood 3 1/2 feet deep in the basement, we have to take action. I commend school district officials for their efforts to overcome these challenges and provide quality education for their students, but these problems are too daunting for any community to overcome by itself."

Beyond clearing funding hurdles, the school board had to look for a building site and acquisition of property was tied to red tape. The district bought property from a tribal land owner who had attended the aging school. He had to take the 102-acre parcel out of trust so the school district could take possession, Tiger said.

He said the old building will be leveled because of asbestos and its failing condition.

"Dr. Bea Medicine wrote letters to the wealthier tribes. I give a lot of credit to her, Mrs. Smit and our school board members for really sticking together," Tiger said.

"I'm just sitting here like a kid waiting for it to be finished," he said.

Anyone who walks through the door of the 1926 Wakpala school will find the plans posted in the doorway and an excited staff ready to talk about a new building for area school children.