School closure plan drawing anger, petitions

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

TOHATCHI, N.M., May 17, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Deandre Etsitty, 3, from Tohatchi, N.M., who has not yet begun school, waits Tuesday at a meeting about the closing of the Tohatchi Middle School. Etsitty said he wants to become a scientist and go to the moon.

SECOND FROM THE TOP: Eight-year-old Bridget Holyan, left, and Brittney Holyan, 12, both from Tohatchi, N.M., attend the meeting Tuesday about the closing of Tohatchi Middle School.

A groundswell of opposition arose this week in several communities against plans by the Gallup-McKinley County School District to close three schools to balance next year's budget.

Parents, students and teachers in Navajo, N.M., Tohatchi and Crownpoint have all vowed during public meetings this week to fight the closures, saying it is not fair that Navajo schools - and not Gallup schools - should take the brunt of the actions to save money.

The groups plan to conduct protests in the coming days in Gallup and in Crownpoint to let school officials know that they won't accept the closures sitting down.

The district's school board voted 3-2 May 10 to close down three schools in the county to save the district $2.7 million next year. The schools scheduled to be closed at the end of this school year are Navajo Elementary, Crownpoint Middle and Tohatchi Middle.

Kim Brown, the assistant superintendent for business, told the board they had a shortfall of $5.6 million because of cutbacks to federal programs. Some $3 million of that has been taken care of by making cutbacks in programs and laying off a few teachers and school employees.

The district's central office will also see staffing reduced by 5.5 employees.

A cost-cutting measure

But that still left a shortfall of $2.5 million and the plan the district came up with is to close the three schools.

The three schools were chosen because schools in the county are not operating anywhere near capacity so moving grades into other schools would be a lot easier than doing that in the city where schools are at near capacity.

School officials said that closing any city school would require the district to put portable buildings at other schools to take handle additional students. Just moving portables would cost the district $50,000 for each one.

So district officials stressed at the meeting that it makes a lot more economic sense to close down the county schools.

For example, if the district closed down Navajo Elementary, 6th graders would go to the elementary school and 7th and 8th graders would go to the high school.

The middle school at Navajo can hold 328 students. The number of students who would go there under the plan would be 265, still well below the school's capacity. The high school, which can hold 364 students, would have only 230 under the new arrangement, again well below capacity.

At Tohatchi and Crownpoint, the plan is to close the two middle schools and the 6th graders would do to the elementary schools and the 7th and 8th graders would move up to the high school.

Closing down each school, said County Superintendent Ray Arsenault, would save the district $900,000 for a total savings of $2.7 million.

Students oppose plan

Making that decision, however, was not an easy one as students from Crownpoint and Navajo packed the school board chambers to plead with the school board not to close their schools.

Rylee DeGroat, a 7th grader at Crownpoint Middle, said moving the 7th and 8th graders up to the high school will only mean that they will be bullied by the older students.

She pointed out that Crownpoint Middle is one of the few schools in the district that made AYP (adequate yearly progress) and that it has a long history of producing quality sports teams and students who go to state.

"Our school is great and we all love it there," she said, adding that 113 of the students, parents and teachers had signed a petition to save their school.

Two of the three Navajo members of the board, Chee Smith Jr. and Kevin Mitchell, opposed closing the schools in their districts, saying they felt the district should take more time to look at other options and to get feedback from the Navajo Nation.

The two non-Navajo members, both of whom represent the city, voted in favor, saying the district had no choice as the district was facing a deadline from the state on approving a budget for next year.

The key vote

The key vote came from Mavis Price, the board's president, who said that this was one of the hardest decisions she has had to make as board member.

In fact, she was the last to vote and hesitated for almost a minute. Finally she said "sorry" and began to tear up. A member of the audience called upon her as a Navajo to support the other two Navajo members of the board.

"I realize that I am a Navajo," she said after the meeting was over, "but I had to do what I thought was in the best interests of the students."

She said she hoped that the closings would be temporary and once the district found some extra funds she would be the first to call for a vote to reverse the decision.

But it was still a difficult decision for many of the students who attended the meeting. After the vote, many were emotional and a couple broke down in tears.

Emotions were still high at the public meetings held earlier this week at the three communities with students and parents breaking down in tears as they explained how the closures affected them.

One parent at the Crownpoint meeting said it was difficult to believe that the district would do this to the Navajos students in the district since they make up more than 80 percent of the student population.

Broken promise

A longtime teacher at Tohatchi Middle said she remembered when Arsenault came to the school three years ago as he was preparing to assume the superintendent position.

"He said he would be there for the Navajo students," the teacher said, adding that he had broken his promise to the community and to the school.

Most of the criticism at the meetings went to Price, who was called a "traitor" to her race. In fact, at the Tohatchi meeting, the biggest applause came when suggestions were made to remove her from the school board.

The problem with that, however, is that none of the affected communities are in her district and any recall would have to come from the district that voted her in.

Price has continued to say that she realizes that a lot of Navajos would not be happy about her decision to support the two city school board members but she really didn't see any alternative.

Arsenault continued to stress that the district plans to take steps over the summer to make the transition on students and teachers as easy as possible.

He said school officials will watch closely to make sure that older high school students won't bully the 7th and 8th graders.

Teachers and staff at the affected schools also raised concerns about their future as district employees but Arsenault said that while there will be some shifting of personnel, no layoffs are expected.

The savings, he said, will be mostly from reduced utility and maintenance costs.

Protests planned

But Edwin Begay, the chapter president for Tohatchi, pointed out that the district spent millions of dollars a few years ago to renovate the middle school and now they plan to just leave it vacant, thus increasing the possibility that it will be vandalized.

At the Tohatchi meeting on Tuesday, the 70 or so people in attendance talked about holding demonstrations in the coming days in front of Arsenault's office.

New Mexico State Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-McKinley and San Juan counties, said at the Tohatchi meeting that she plans to talk to state education officials to see if they would get involved.

"We're also going to be talking to Price, asking her to reconsider and allowing the matter to be brought before the board again so it can be tabled to allow input from people in the areas where the school closings are being planned," she said.

Parents and students are also expected to hold a protest at 1 p.m. Friday at Navajo Technical College during a visit by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education.

People in the affected communities also talked about drawing up petitions. As of Wednesday, more than 300 have signed various petitions.

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