Skandera mulls whether to split school district

Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, May 24, 2012

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W hen May 29 arrives, the Central Consolidated School District is expected to learn its fate - whether status quo as a 3,000-square-mile district or split in half at the Navajo Reservation boundary.

New Mexico education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera will make that determination, after listening to four hours of arguments at a quasi-judicial hearing last week at San Juan College in Farmington.

Skandera held the hearing in response to a petition filed by Children First, a Kirtland-based group that supports the split.

Children First formed after a May 17, 2011,meeting in which school board members voted 4-1 to close the Kirtland business office. The vote by the board moved the operations of the business office to Shiprock, where all personnel are currently located.

The decision by the board, which board President Matthew Tso deemed a cost-saving move, created tensions among the communities, including a standoff of what many involved say is about race - Native American vs. Caucasian.

Byron Manning, former executive director of finance and operations for the district, organized the petition for the recent hearing at San Juan College. He is the designated spokesman for Children First.

"There are community differences with what we are trying to achieve," Manning said, explaining the reason behind the creation of the proposed Kirtland school district. "We want a more rigorous curriculum to prepare our students for college."

Manning said the board's decision to move the business office means that since the main office is now in Shiprock, which is on Navajo Nation land, Navajo preference and employment laws could take effect.

Manning, who has been an outspoken opponent against Navajo preference, said it would set the minimum qualifications for teachers. This is another reason why Children First is petitioning the state for the split, he said.

Despite his views on Navajo preference, Manning said the entire issue is not about race. In fact, he said, the issue of it being about race is blown out of proportion.

"Mr. Tso has tried to make it about race," Manning said. "Kirtland is majority Native American. It is about 79 percent Native American, about 16 to 17 percent Caucasian and about 4 percent Hispanic.

"If the Navajo population were against the split we wouldn't have gotten the 3,000 signatures (needed for the petition)," Manning added.


"There's always been a divide between Kirtland and Shiprock," he said. "You're a Bronco no matter what color you are."

Opponents of the split, primarily Tso and the school board - except for the lone dissenter on the board, Randy Manning - claim the issue is indeed about race.

If history indicates anything, the tensions arising from this proposal are similar to a 1982 attempt by a group called Kirtland Concerned Citizens who also petitioned the state to split the district along the same boundary lines, Tso said.

"The race issue is something that is definitely in play," Tso said. "It's quite prevalent. The main issue for the split is because of the Kirtland Business Office. They're in opposition to that."

According to Tso, the split will create problems, including the possibility of litigation as a result of diluting Native American voting rights, costs, and capital funding, among other negative factors that outweigh the positives.

"One of the biggest things to be examined by the secretary is how the money situation plays into splitting the district," Tso said. "It's going to require the district to create two new democracies and take money out of the classrooms."

What's more, Tso said Navajo coal and power plants on the Navajo Nation contribute to the school district, contesting Children First's view of "taxation without representation."

"The mines and power plants play a huge role with district bonding," he said. "Our district is able to raise money through a bond election to build schools. The mines and power plants play a huge role in our district.

"The amount of money from property taxes is approximately 1.3 percent of the total budget and they think they should call all the shots," Tso added.

Vice President Rex Lee Jim, who was present at the hearing, supports the board's decision not to split the district, saying it will hurt Navajo children.

"The Navajo Nation strongly opposes the split," Jim said. "It's not in the best interest of children, of the schools, of the community, of the future.

"The Navajo Nation has entered this debate because most of the students are Navajo," Jim said, adding that the district's boundaries would be reminiscent of Jim Crow laws, when children were separated according to the color of their skin and used separate water fountains.

Jim also said the two school districts would force a Navajo child to choose and think that an off-reservation school is better than a school on the reservation.

"We have struggled for years to undo the colonized Navajo mind," he said.

Asked how he felt about which way Skandera could rule on Tuesday, Tso replied, "We satisfactorily argued our case in why a split should not happen. All four members of the board are confident a split will not happen."

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