Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico

Dave Goldtooth says he was shocked when he received the call to lead the Central Consolidated School District.

It was a dream job, and despite his initial hesitation, Goldtooth, Diné, accepted the offer to serve as the interim superintendent for the Four Corners district with more than 6,000 students, 90 percent of whom are Native American.

It was September 2019 when he got a call from the School Board president at the time, Charlie Jones, telling him that at the board meeting that night, the superintendent resigned, and they had to find a replacement. “He says ‘You have to take on the lead. Starting now.’ And then that’s when another board member came on and said, ‘You are highly recommended.’ ”

Goldtooth would be the first fluent Diné language speaker to lead the district. As the new superintendent, he took on the first stages of the pandemic. He led the transition to remote learning for students to finish out their Spring 2020 semester and connected services such as meal programs to the Chapter Houses in the Navajo Nation, where many students and their families in his district live.

Of the 17 schools in the district, 12 are in the Navajo Nation. This connection to community he established in the schools on the Navajo Nation was heralded by the board as a reason he says they wanted him in the role. “ ‘We’ve heard so much of what you do and how you connect the community into the school building,’ ” Goldtooth says he was told on the phone before he took the job, “ ‘We wouldn’t have that partnership with not only the Chapter House that is a few yards away from the school but with the community members and all the activities that you do. It’s always targeting culture, language, and then also heritage, and you still incorporate the Western education.’ ”

COVID-19 was especially rough in the area, and eventually the Navajo Nation instituted lockdowns and curfews to combat the virus that has killed 534 people in San Juan County alone.

While Goldtooth was leading the district through the challenges of the pandemic, his efforts were undermined, and he was disrespected and micromanaged improperly, according to a lawsuit filed in early August. School administrators and the district’s legal counsel circumvented his authority and interfered with his job duties, while also excluding him from decisions and meetings, the complaint states — this created a hostile work environment.

It’s part of a longer pattern of discrimination against Native teachers and district leaders, the lawsuit indicates, and the systemic racism also impacts Indigenous students. “Historically and currently (with the exception of Dr. Goldtooth’s efforts) CCSD has failed to meet Native students’ educational needs,” the lawsuit states.

After many inappropriate and disrespectful interactions with colleagues — two people in particular stand out in the complaint as repeatedly impeding his work — Goldtooth had to make what he says was a difficult choice. On May 13, 2020, he submitted a resignation letter to the school board after months of power struggles with the school board and the district’s legal counsel, he says. In response, he was placed on administrative leave six days later.

Now, the circumstances of Goldtooth’s tenure are under legal review. He’s suing the district and every school board member, alleging harassment and retaliation, and arguing the district discriminates against Native Americans.

“The non-Indigenous administrators are creating disharmony in the lives (and) works of the majority at a district, because they are foreign to our holistic teaching and learning,” Goldtooth says. “They don’t understand living in a rich culture that deals with family unity through social, emotional learning."

His experience is also prominent because it shows a significant division between a local school district and communities it serves. The lawsuit touches on many themes presented by the 2018 education court settlement Yazzie-Martinez settlement, such as promoting traditional language access to Navajo students and culturally relevant curriculum, plus the effort to promote and hire Indigenous educators — not only in the classrooms but also in administrative roles.

Goldtooth’s rise to superintendent had a slight similarity to his departure in that he took the job on an interim basis in September 2019 after his predecessor, also an acting superintendent, stepped down.

Before he took the gig, he was the multicultural coordinator with CCSD’s Cultural Heritage Department. He’d also been the principal at Naschitti Elementary School for four years. He began his career as a teacher and has consistently worked with Navajo students.

His background was instrumental to the community outreach he says is vital to building a positive relationship with tribal communities and the non-Native institutions that administer services.

Motion to dismiss

The case is filed in the 11th Judicial District in San Juan County. Goldtooth is represented by Rosario D. Vega Lynn. District Judge Curtis R. Gurley is presiding over the matters.

A motion to dismiss his lawsuit was filed Sept. 20. Lawyers for Central Consolidated argue Goldtooth doesn’t have sufficient claims for retaliation or hostile work environment under the statutes offering relief granted by the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. The defense attorneys also dispute the claims the district interfered with his contract by severing the relationship before it ended. 

Goldtooth is also suing every member of the school board — Gary Montoya, Suzette Haskie, Christina Aspaas, Charlie Jones, Jr. and Sheldon Pickering — as well as the legal counsel for the district Germaine Chappelle. 

In their motion to dismiss, opposing lawyers argue the claims against the district and school board members are duplicate, so they should be thrown out for all parties.

Goldtooth’s attorney filed a response against the motion on Tuesday. CCSD has 15-days to respond. At that point, they can request a hearing or allow the judge to decide based on the filings.

A representative from the Central Consolidated School District said in a statement, “The district is not able to provide comment due to ongoing litigation. This issue precedes the current administration. However, CCSD remains steadfast in providing students with the best resources to have a high quality education.”

Authority ignored

Goldtooth says his problems with the school district began when Gary Montoya took over as school board president in January 2020. Goldtooth refused to follow directions from Montoya to terminate a district employee Montoya had personal beef with, according to the complaint. “Montoya held a grudge against the CCSD director of operations because the director had been involved in placing him on administrative leave while he was employed as a maintenance worker with CCSD,” the complaint states.

More trouble with staffing changes happened during a nine-hour meeting on April 22, 2020, with Montoya and district counsel Germaine Chappelle scrutinizing his every personnel decision, according to the complaint. Goldtooth wasn’t allowed to leave the room and couldn’t bring an assistant with him, as was customary, the complaint states, and Montoya ordered him to follow lawyer Chappelle’s instructions.

Chappelle argued on behalf of two employees Goldtooth had placed on administrative leave at that meeting, according to the complaint.

“Chappelle also ordered and bullied Goldtooth to agree to the terms of settlement demanded by these employees,” the lawsuit states, and those orders contradicted the recommendations of another law firm the district contracts with. Goldtooth refused to do so and requested he be permitted to seek the other law firm’s input, “which Chappelle refused to permit him to do,” according to the complaint.

Then a week later, Chappelle handed Goldtooth new criteria for evaluating administrative leave policy, according to the lawsuit, saying the criteria had been approved by Board President Montoya. “When Dr. Goldtooth objected to her demands, Chappelle would threaten him with CCSD Board action if he did not do as she instructed,” the complaint states.

After a closed-session board meeting, Chappelle put the two employees back to work with Montoya’s approval, according to the lawsuit. One was given a new position Chappelle created, the “director of Transformational Community School,” though the employee is not a member of a tribe and does not speak Navajo, the complaint points out, and Chappelle skipped the procurement process in creating that role.

This pattern was normal, according to allegations in the lawsuit: “Chappelle routinely ignored Dr. Goldtooth, and she took it upon herself to investigate personnel matters or complaints against CCSD personnel. Chappelle informed Dr. Goldtooth multiple times that she did as the Board asked her to do.’”

Patterns of discrimination

The district and the person filling Goldtooth’s former job as director of Curriculum and Instruction refused to allow Native students who did not already speak Navajo to enroll in Navajo language classes, the complaint states. The new director wasn’t Native, according to the lawsuit, and this decision not to allow all Indigenous students to take the courses regardless of skill resulted in discrimination, according to the lawsuit.

A prominent Diné-language instructor quit because of this policy, the complaint states.

There are also allegations that several other Native American instructors were forced out of their positions with the district. “Inexplicably, the defendants have routinely overlooked qualified Native American candidates and have hired non-Natives with significantly less qualifications to fill positions of authority within the CCSD schools,” the lawsuit states.

Case in point: Chappelle replaced Goldtooth with a superintendent who isn’t Native, who doesn’t speak Navajo and who doesn’t have a doctorate, according to the lawsuit, and the leadership today refuses to collaborate with tribes or supplement its curriculum to better suit Indigenous students.

Chapter Houses demand action

The summation of these event and others have led to action by the Shiprock Chapter House officials to adopt a resolution demanding the Navajo Nation, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and other entities to investigate the CCSD administration and school board for, “Many violation of unethical practices within the school district and not adhering to the Navajo Nation laws.”

Shiprock Chapter officials said they received substantial reports that elementary and secondary principals were being bullied by the district administrators. They write in the resolution that as of April 2021, these employees had not received annual reviews from the district that required to be submitted to the state Public Education Department.

“This has provided lack of open communication and shared trust demonstrated by the CCSD administration, and has alarmed the stakeholders of all surrounding Northern Agency community that have CCSD children,” the resolution concludes. “We have asked why our CCSD administration would create such disharmony, trauma and uncertainty at a time when our communities, families and most importantly children need consistency and stability during a Navajo Major Disaster Declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This resolution could lead to an exercise of sovereignty. At the moment, the Shiprock Chapter House has not received notice that the call for the investigation into CCSD will take place anytime soon. However, the Navajo Nation could take further steps, possibly legal, to lead an investigation into the claims made against CCSD.

Goldtooth is back to work with Navajo children as a counselor at the Window Rock Unified School District. Despite the lawsuit and the implications it has for his career and what it could do to his reputation, he says it’s incredibly important to stand up against the circumstances he faced while leading CCSD.

“Yes, I went through so much, not only from (Chappelle and the school board) but through other means of people,” Goldtooth said. “I always told myself, I am here to advocate, I’m here to represent, I’m here to keep everyone harmoniously and spiritually intact. Because who’s gonna do it if it wasn’t for me? I wouldn’t have been in that capacity to begin with.”

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