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Fire destroys elementary school on Fort Belknap reservation

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By Katie Oyan --Associated Press

HAYS, Mont. (AP) - St. Paul's Mission School on the Fort Belknap Reservation was destroyed in a fire.

The blaze started at about 7 p.m. June 15, said Bum Stiffarm, chief administrative officer for the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine tribes. Volunteer firefighters from Hays, Lodge Pole, Fort Belknap Agency, Harlem and Chinook responded.

The cause of the fire was unknown June 16, but a state fire marshal was at the scene investigating. No one was injured.

Stiffarm said the classroom, offices and cafeteria were a total loss.

''We're still assessing the gymnasium, but it looks like there's extensive water and smoke damage,'' he said. ''We don't know if it weakened the structure.''

The Catholic school had an enrollment of 80 to 90 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and employed about a dozen people, including teachers, janitors, cooks, a librarian, a tutor and a principal, said Sister Laura Fucito of St. Paul's Mission Church. No summer classes were in session.

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Fucito said it was too soon to know whether the elementary school and adjoining gym would be rebuilt.

''We're just now beginning to look at those options,'' said Joe Loncki, business manager for the Great Falls-Billings Diocese.

Until something is decided, it's possible that students from St. Paul's could attend classes at the elementary school in Lodge Pole, about 11 miles away, Stiffarm said.

''We're going to be initiating talks with the church to see what the educational plans are for the students,'' he said.

St. Paul's Mission School in Hays is one of four American Indian Catholic schools in the diocese, Loncki said. The others are on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.

Fucito said the building that housed St. Paul's was built in the 1970s to replace a previous mission school, which also burned down.

''All I know is that it was an excellent school,'' she said. ''It's a definite loss to the community, and hopefully something can be done.''

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