Education Debate on the Navajo Nation

After much debate over budgetary concerns and the fate of Native American students, no middle schools on the Navajo Nation reservation will be closing.

The New Mexico Public Education Department has formally ruled against two school districts that border the Navajo Nation that debated closing and reorganizing schools along reservation borders. The Gallup McKinley District’s school board voted in May of 2012 in a 3-2 vote to close three reservation middle schools—Crownpoint, Navajo, and Tohatchie. This spring, the San Juan School District was ordered by Children First to split off from the Central Consolidated School District. Critics of the petition say Children First is largely comprised of non-Native Mormons from Kirtland, New Mexico angered that the department moved the district’s business office from their town to Shiprock, on the reservation, in 2011. The central issue is that neither of the districts consulted the Navajo Nation before making these decisions, a direct violation of provisions in Title 10 of the Navajo Nation Code states that districts must consult with the tribe before making any decisions that affect Navajo students. Navajo President Ben Shelly threatened the pursuit of legal avenues. Hanna Skandera, the education secretary-designate for New Mexico decided against the split in San Juan County prompting school board (and Children First) member Randy Manning to call Skandera and New Mexico Governor Martinez “gutless and afraid to take on the tribe.” Manning continued his torrent saying the Shiprock-centered district will ruin the Kirtland schools. As for the Gallup McKinley school district, Skandera recently ruled against the school closings on the reservation. In a letter to the school board dated June 11 but not delivered until July 11, Skandera said the Public Education Department were “DISAPPROVING” the request. She explained that the district didn’t outline the expected educational benefits nor did they consult with the tribal governing body or education department in the final decision. Skandera did acknowledge the fiscal concerns facing the school. There is fear of a budget shortfall including a reduction in Impact Aid funding believed to be limited in Fiscal Year 2013. Impact Aid is the federal program that reimburses districts for lost property tax revenue on lands that are government owned and managed, such as military bases, national parks and reservations. A spokesperson for the Department of Education denies any upcoming limitations in aid, saying “according to our Impact Aid office, our review of the Impact Aid Data system indicates that the loss of the $66.9 million to districts for federal property would not have an impact on Indian education. Districts educating Indian children are not recipients of this formula grant.” Earlier in 2012, Gallup McKinley School Board President Mavis Price cast the deciding vote to approve the schools closings because news came down from the state Public Education Office that they would suffer a shortfall in federal funding and the nearly $2.6 million that had been set aside is already spent. Mavis said, “we went through it like a hot knife through butter.” Yet an email circulated at a May 11 meeting from Larry Behrens, Public Information Officer with the New Mexico Public Education Department, said, “Although final budget numbers have not been finalized, Gallup is expected to receive about $2.6 million more in SEG (state funding formula dollars) in school year 2013 with a small increase over current year.” Price is Navajo and has encountered hostility that she didn’t vote appropriately for the people. “I voted the way I should have, and it was not just for what was best for Navajo kids but what was best for all the kids in the district,” Price said. She said closing the three middle schools would save $900,000 a year in maintenance costs. Price was quick to point out it will not be a great hardship for the students. “We’re moving the kids just half a mile.” Most of the schools are physically close, Navajo Pine and Navajo Middle School are next door, for instance. Parents and family complained it isn’t the physical change but the social change and pressure for the younger kids forcibly streamed into the high school population, specifically in regards to bullying. Shelly, in a statement issued July 12 praised Skandera’s decision because it will “allow our children to continue their education without worrying about being placed with older students.” The prime resource of all nations is children. In the Kirtland schools, the children were moving towards collaboration before the divisive Children First schism took place. In 2010, one year before their petition to separate from the reservation schools was circulated, Kirtland’s K-3 grades saw an increase in students wanting to take bilingual Navajo language lessons. Most of the interested students were Navajo, but there were some that simply wanted to understand the language of their peers. Skandera’s decision against splitting and fracturing schools along reservation lines sends a message that the education of the Navajo students is as important and as valuable as their peers.