State rules schools will not close

By Bill Donovan
Special to Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 13, 2012

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T he State of New Mexico has told the Gallup-McKinley County School District to drop the idea of closing down three schools located on the Navajo reservation in the fall.

The school district had planned to close Navajo Pine Elementary, Tohatchi Middle School and Crownpoint Middle School and merge the affected students into other schools in the district in an effort to save $2.7 million and balance this year's budget.

But Interim State Education Director Hanna Skandera, in a letter to the school district Thursday, told school district officials that in closing the schools they had violated state laws which require that local Indian tribes be consulted before any state agency makes a decision that affects them.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly had met with the school board just days after they made the decision to close the schools and protested their actions, saying they should have consulted the tribe and held public meetings with parents in the affected communities before they made their decision.

The school board had held no public hearings, making the decision at a school board meeting and then repeatedly refused to reconsider when Shelly and people, especially parents of students, in the affected communities demanded that they hold public hearings.

The letter from Skandera stressed that the district should have consulted the Navajo Nation before making the decision. It also stated that in closing the schools, the district did not explain what educational benefits would occur with the closures.

There was a question, however, as to whether the state would have gone ahead and approved the closings if the district had done that and the Navajo Nation had opposed.

With this decision, the district now has to immediately come up with a new budget and find $2.7 million to cut out of existing programs to balance the budget.

District officials Thursday said a new way will have to be found to get a balanced budget.

Kim Brown, assistant superintendent for finance for the school district, said district officials had begun discussions in recent days after the state didn't immediately approve the school closures about coming up with an alternative plan to make up the $2.7 million.

"Those discussions are on-going," she said.

Max Perez, assistant superintendent for learning services for the school district, said that whatever happens, the district is looking at making cuts in staff and programs.

Shortly after the Skandera letter was made public, Shelly and tribal leaders issued statements praising her decision.

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