The Owyhee Combined School celebrated its prom in early May. The gym was filled with tables, floral decorations and teenagers dancing.
The gym looked like any high school gym, but the hallways and classrooms told a different story. The school is in dire need of repair.
“Aesthetically, it’s really beautiful. It’s a 1950s Art Deco, but don’t look too closely,” vice principal Lynn Manning-John said as she looked at the building from outside.
The school, located in Owyhee, a remote town near the Nevada-Idaho border, serves the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
More than 300 students in preschool through twelfth grade attend the school. It was built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1954. At that time, it had only one wing with classrooms for preschool through sixth grade.
“Any student who wanted to attend school after sixth grade had to leave the reservation and attend a boarding school,” Manning-John said.
In 1956, the reservation school system was consolidated into the Elko County School District.
Over the past five decades, the building has deteriorated due to a lack of attention from the school district and its remote location.
“There’s a lot of love for this building. But the building has not been maintained adequately in order for it to continue to function. As a school, there are so many safety hazards, so many health hazards,” Manning-John said.
One of the biggest concerns is the heating system used by the school, which consists of two industrial boilers built in the late 1990s, radiators and mounted heaters.
Classrooms that sit directly above the boiler, including the second grade classroom, get radiant heat.
“Whenever the boiler is on, this room has some chemical smells. You can smell a little bit of a plasticky smell,” Manning-John said.
Inside one of the restrooms, Manning-John pointed out an exposed pipe that’s between a window and a bathroom stall.
“It’s probably 100 degrees to the touch or maybe more,” she said.
Uninsulated heating pipes, such as this one, can cause second, or even third degree burns.
Down the hallway, a long crack runs along the two walls. Some windows are cracked and the main doors of the school do not close completely.
And the homeschool room has been dealing with a bat colony for more than a decade.
“Just outside of this wall, the eave is sagging. And that situation has resulted in bats living on the roof. And so when they roost and leave their droppings, the droppings drip out of what is now a replaced tile into the bucket. During the times when there’s liquids dripping, we shut down the classroom,” Manning-John said.
Pamela King has been a home economics teacher for five years and is frustrated with the condition of the school.
“It’s depressing. It’s depressing for the kids. I’m an Army veteran and I have lived in World War II barracks that are in better shape than that school,” King said.
While most students are used to the deterioration of the school, freshman Angelina Mason shared her concerns.
“In the winter it’s cold because they have a boiler and it takes a day to actually warm up. They need a better playground. And better sidewalks around the playground because the sidewalks are mostly just broken,” Mason said.
On April 27, tribal leaders, students and teachers traveled all the way from Owyhee to Carson City to speak with legislators and to lobby for a new school.
Since December, Tribal Chairman Brian Mason has been meeting with the Elko County School District, state senators and members of Congress in hopes of addressing the problem.
A bill in the Nevada Legislature proposed one-time funding of more than $60 million to build a new school in a different location. But the proposal stalled as lawmakers want to find ways to more systematically fund schools on tribal lands.
Mason and the Tribal Council have already identified a 160 acre site where a new school would be built.
The new location is roughly three miles away from the current school and is adjacent to their growing community, Mason said.
And regardless of what happens with the proposed funding bill, they’re moving forward with a new school, he said.
“Obviously we’re not a revenue tribe. But we can’t not do anything. We’ve got hope. So that’s where it would be. I’ll use my favorite term, because Indian lives matter too,” Mason said.