On any given weekday throughout our long Minnesota winter, ten young elementary school students ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade take their spelling tests, work on math problems and eat their lunches all while wearing their winter jackets. During power outages, which are regular occurrences in this area of the state, they bring out the blankets and keep on learning.
During the spring rains, the students make a game of filling cups with the water that runs through the window frames and into their classroom. The many mold spots on the ceiling and in the stained fluorescent light fixtures don’t drip water; they pour water like a spigot. Buckets sitting beside desks and a constant mildew smell are barely blinked at.
When the weather is finally warm enough, the boys go to the bathroom outside to save on flushing. When the plumbing isn’t working at all, they use a portable toilet – the kind you might see on a big boat. Their teacher then carts the waste home to empty it into her own septic system.
Yes, over the last many years an unacceptable new normal has taken root at the quaint and often-lauded Angle Inlet School, Minnesota’s last one-room public school house.
Teacher Linda LaMie, who has been devoted to the school for thirty-odd years, and her students, and paraprofessional teacher’s assistant, Mrs. Samantha Shoen, have learned to adapt.
“Living at The Angle is more challenging in a lot of ways than most other places in Minnesota,” said Mrs. LaMie. “We’re not complainers. We’ve adapted and learned to put up with a lot, but now that I see more and more how the building’s condition is impacting the kids’ ability to learn and do what kids need to do every day, well, it’s time to make some noise.”
For Mrs. LaMie, it has become normal to squeeze around the rows of plastic storage bins stacked seven-high beside her desk due to lack of closet space for materials and supplies.
It doesn’t faze anyone except visitors when an errant dodgeball during indoor Phy. Ed. knocks over stacks of books, scatters the in-process art projects or sends the spare boxes of tissues flying. The students adore their time to move and play, as all kids do, and in this small space, they’ve become as nimble as billy goats. No one has crashed into the piano. No one has hit their head on one of the aging desks. No one has been seriously injured tripping over the loose and wrinkled threadbare carpet.
On Monday, April 10, State Representatives Dan Fabian and Matt Grossell made the long trek north to the top of Minnesota’s “chimney” to visit the small school. Co-authors of HF 1089, a bond bill that may finally provide funds for repairs and updates, legislative veteran Fabian and newly elected Grossell crossed the Canadian border and wound along the final 20 miles of bumpy gravel roads, all with the goal of touring the functioning-but-rundown school, meeting the students and talking to the community they’ve vowed to fight for.
Remote and often overlooked, the Northwest Angle is on the map as a fishing destination. According to the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, the area brings in excess of $10M in economic impact to the state. And the community is growing. From 2014 to 2015, lodging expenditures rose 15%. And for the second year in a row, attendance at the small Angle school has measured in the double-digits.
The growth is highly significant in the life of Mrs. LaMie. She teaches all subjects to seven different grade levels, which is over 70 lesson plans each day. Last year, the school district (Warroad 690) brought on a part-time teacher’s assistant to help out with the workload. Mrs. Shoen, who graduated from UND with a double major in English and History is working towards her education degree and was once a student at The Angle School herself. The extra help came none too soon, especially considering that for years Mrs. LaMie’s job has also included responsibilities that teachers in nearby Baudette, Warroad, or Roseau, not to mention in the metropolitan areas south of here, would never be asked to complete.
She shovels snow and throws salt. She pulls weeds and trims the trees. She rolls out the septic blanket in the fall and puts it away in the spring. She maintains the water softener, adding salt and making minor repairs as needed. She functions in an IT roll, trouble-shooting the printer, fax machine, copier and student computers. She is a front desk receptionist, answering the school phone and all the correspondence received by visitors inquiring about the unique history of the area. She is the school nurse, the music instructor, art teacher, Phy. Ed. coach and so much more.
When it comes to building maintenance, often, if she doesn’t do these chores, they simply don’t get done. We all know that teachers across the country use their own resources to ensure their classrooms are fully stocked, which, in its broad acceptability, clearly speaks to the broken education system in our country. But, in Mrs. LaMie’s case at the Angle School, it’s reached an unacceptable standard far beyond what is experienced elsewhere.
Representative Fabian has been visiting The Angle for over thirty years, but this recent trip was the first time he’d been inside the school building. Warroad Public Schools, which encompasses The Angle, fall within his district. Representative Grossell held a campaign goal of visiting The Angle, and after he received letters from each of the students, he set a date. Entering the school together for the first time, both had no difficulty seeing and smelling what all the current concerns stem from. The air exchanger hasn’t worked for years. The roof recently had tarpaulins nailed to it in several places. The bathrooms smell of must and mold. The classroom, while bright and bustling, is cramped and cluttered.
School health is traditionally an indicator of community health but not in this case, and perhaps that’s why the thriving Angle community has begun to stand-up as a group to get their message across. The condition of the building has been steadily deteriorating for years, and with the growth of the student body the extra use adds to the current strain on an already appalling facility.
State representatives have visited in the past, but this is the first time the community jumped into full-fledged action. They organized a full agenda, starting with a traditional Angle shore-lunch. The reps then spent time with the students and Mrs. LaMie, touring the school and noting building conditions. Later in the afternoon, the community gathered in St. Luke’s Church, the only other public building open during ice-out, and heard a brief legislative update from both reps as well participated in a Q&A session about the school and other community concerns.
The goal was to leave a lasting impression with Fabian and Grossell, who returned to their capitol jobs and other more pressing issues the next day. Despite bellies full of fried walleye and wild blueberry dessert, an earful of parent concerns and the sweet and subtle pleas of a humble study body asking for help, if history is any indicator, the reps will make promises onsite, but the dilapidated school and ten determined students will quickly be forgotten.
But the hardworking community doesn’t seem to be willing to stand for that any longer. “We are vote-casting, tax-paying members of 690 and want to see equal representation up here,” Angle resident and parent Lisa Goulet said. “We’re looking forward to seeing real results, not just the proverbial pat on the head that we’ve been getting for so many years.”
Four members of Warroad Public School District 690 were also present on Monday’s meetings with the students and State Representatives. Bearing school supply gifts for the kids, board members Brian Hontvet and Laurie Thompson, Building Facilitator Kelly Klein and Superintendent Paula Foley spent time listening and answering questions as needed.
It was the seventh trip that Foley had made to The Angle in her 1 1/2 years with the district. In the past, concerns have been raised regarding the school district’s financial status, which Foley has been addressing since coming on board in 2015. She also committed to a better accounting in the future of how the Northwest Angle’s levied tax dollars are being spent, and the matter is on the agenda for the Warroad School Board meeting on May 15.
The NW Angle is part of Lake of the Woods County but sends its kids to the Warroad schools due to proximity. Based on NW Angle real estate tax revenue over the last five years, an average of $377,216 has been transferred from Lake of the Woods County to District 690.
“Of these years checked, NWA residents assume 15-17% of the total dollars levied by the Warroad school district each year,” Stacy Novak wrote in answer to an email enquiry. Novak is the Lake of the Woods Property Tax Administrator and Deputy Auditor/Treasurer.
What this all means is that Angle residents’ concerns about adequate tax representation are absolutely valid. The Angle doesn’t make up 15-17% of the Warroad student body, and yet 15-17% of district dollars levied come from The Angle. That said, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible or even possible to put that much money back into the Angle School each year. The district divides by student and by need not by big houses on expensive shoreline. Also, many of The Angle 7-12 graders are bussed into town and are part of the bigger Warroad School complex and all of its many activities and programs.
Still, The Angle school needs funds now. Quick fixes aren’t working any longer. It would be a boon to the district if the state bond bill would come through, but if it doesn’t, the district needs to step up and reallocate funds to make thorough renovations.
Back to the bond bill, the visiting representatives were genuine in their promises to do all they could to push it forward. Frustration was palpable in many voices during the community meeting, but ultimately the words of Representative Grossell rang loud and clear. “This is an absolute need. I’ve promised to fight for those in need, and this, to me, is a clear one.”
While the community has advocates in Reps Grossell and Fabian, the challenge remains to convince other members of the Capitol Investment and Education & Finance committees. The Speaker of the House needs to hear voices raised in unison. Voting members of the House and Senate who represent districts hours south of here have no concept of the school’s conditions, that the boys each have their own chosen tree to use when the plumbing isn’t working, that the girls sit huddled in snow gear to keep warm, and that the unseen mold may be causing health concerns.
In the past, teacher, students and community have tolerated the deplorable condition of their school because they must, and because they know with all certainty that this unique schooling experience is helping their community churn out a completely different brand of child. There is no sense of entitlement among these kids. Bullying doesn’t exist. Their levels of adaptability, resourcefulness and resolve, as well as negotiation skills, are well above average. Measuring this is, of course, arbitrary, but one conversation with these kids, where first-graders are chiming in right beside sixth-graders, proves the case. Constant interaction with older students builds confidence and self-esteem, while day-to-day exposure to the younger ones grows them into helpful, compassionate individuals who know how to serve.
This community grows kids who are going to be part of a problem-solving shift that desperately needs to take place in our country and beyond. Very big real-world problems stem from an education system in chaos, from under-paid and under-appreciated teachers, from standardized testing that lumps all kids into one category.
And while the Angle Inlet School adheres to all Minnesota public school policy, it is the unique environment that makes up for it. These students foster a decade-long relationship with one teacher. They learn and benefit from the contributions of community members near and far. They turn into teachers themselves, college professors, principals, assistant principals, law assistants, lawyers, physical therapists, graphic designers, nurses, members of the armed forces, fishing guides, stay-at-home moms – the ultimate teacher, and so much more.
During that Monday town hall Q&A with the state reps, “plan B” was brought up quite quickly. Though the words weren’t spoken, Representative Fabian didn’t appear confident that the bond bill would even make it to the floor.
“I’m hopeful that we have a bonding bill this year. I really, really am,” Fabian said, before expounding for several minutes on the merits of a possible philanthropic drive to raise money for the school. “There’s some discussion about whether we will [have a bonding bill] this year or not, but I think that it’s absolutely vital that we do. People like Matt and myself have spoken up a number of times in the caucus meetings about the importance of a bonding bill especially with regards to projects like this.”
If the worst happens and the bill is tabled, it would be the second year in a row that the NW Angle school, which is asking for $700K out of an $800 million bond bill, would get the shaft. The students would suffer in silence for another long winter. The building, under the care of an over-worked, retirement-age school teacher who earns no more than other teachers of her tenure, will continue to fall-apart.
If the worst happens, the students will keep on growing into responsible contributing adults, but it won’t be because our state proved they cared for them by funding an adequate facility. It’ll be because the community then had to resort to a herculean fundraising drive. It’ll be because their teacher never gave up and always went the extra mile. It’ll be because an already -strained school district pulled together and found pennies here and there.
The community cares and is determined to make it work, but more than anything they want their elected government, from school board members up to the state reps and senators, to do this work for them. It’s why the system exists in the first place. No matter what, we fight for our kids because students who are well-provided for become adults who make a difference. And those are the adults who are going to change the world.
This isn’t just for the kids; it’s for all of us.
(Published in the April 18 issue of the Warroad Pioneer )
(A shorter version was published in the April 12th issue of Williams/Baudette Northern Light Region.)
(Featured intro photo by Sam Shoen.)