Delegates vote against middle school closures, split of Central district

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 7, 2012

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I n response to the lack of consultation with the Navajo Nation by the Gallup-McKinley County School District about its decision to shut down three middle schools on the reservation, the Naa'bik'íyati' Committee on Tuesday voted to oppose the closures.

At a special meeting, the committee unanimously passed a bill along with four amendments recommending that the district's school board reconsider the closure of the middle schools in Crownpoint, Navajo and Tohatchi.

Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs/St. Michaels) sponsored the legislation, which passed the committee 14-0.

Last month, the school board voted 3-2 to close the schools after a revenue projection indicated the district would suffer a $2.5 million shortfall in federal funding.

Given that the school board had to approve and submit a budget to the state education department, pursuant to state law, delegates Dwight Witherspoon and Edmund Yazzie offered amendments requesting congressional leaders and education chief Hanna Skandera to intervene and "do all things necessary to avoid the closure."

"We got to get our state leaders involved,' Yazzie said. "This is a state problem that could be handled at the state level."

The amendments also called on other public school districts on and off the Navajo Nation, pursuant to provisions in Title 10 of the Navajo Nation Code, to consult with the tribe before any decisions such as the closure of schools takes effect.

"For them to use the fact that we have dwindling funds in Impact Aid to close these schools is nothing short of discrimination, said Delegate Katherine Benally. "Their action by closing those schools is evidence that all those schools were surviving on was Impact Aid."

"Is Gallup-McKinley County telling me just because there is no Impact Aid funds coming to those schools that those schools should close?" Benally said. "That action alone tells me that GMCS has been unfairly distributing money to Navajo schools. We should be spitting bloody murder. I am. I am not happy with what they did."

In addition, the bill requests the school board to obtain a comprehensive study of the hardships Navajo students would endure if the schools closed and a complete review of each school's budget.

Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, a parent who is against the shutdown of the schools, said the tribe's official position buys more time for negotiation.

"We are facing a tight window of opportunity," she said. "We have less than a few weeks to negotiate with the school board and state."

The state has until June 19 to decide on the school district's budget for next year. If the state approves the board's budget, Crownpoint Middle, Navajo Middle and Tohatchi Middle would not be in operation next school year.

Jim-Martin also said she appreciated how the amendments by Witherspoon and Yazzie strengthened the legislation.

"I think it's better that all the state representatives that represent our communities be involved," she added. "They have access to funding and resources. That is what we need."

The committee also unanimously passed a second bill sponsored by Hale, which opposes the split of the Central Consolidated School District.

The bill calls for President Ben Shelly to take necessary measures with the Health, Education and Human Services Committee and the Naa'bik'íyati' Committees to oppose the creation of a new school district.

The legislation has supporting resolutions from the Nenanhnezad and San Juan chapters and the Northern Navajo Agency Council.

On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission issued a press release also opposing the split of the school district after assessing human rights and voting rights standards.

According to the commission, the creation of a new school district as pushed by Children First, which claims a smaller, separate district is a smart investment for public education, would dilute Navajo voting strength.

On Friday, Skandera is scheduled to meet with Shelly and Speaker Johnny Naize at the 4th Annual State-Tribal Leaders Summit in Mescalero, N.M.

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