Court tells Red Mesa to provide busing for out-of-state students

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

RED MESA, Ariz., April 5, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Chanting, "There's no us without the bus," about 50 parents and students from Red Mesa schools marched from the Red Mesa Chapter House to the school board meeting room March 28 to protest the elimination of bus service for out-of-state students.

Red Mesa School District resumed bus service for out-of-state students Tuesday after a temporary restraining order from Aneth District Court ordered it to provide the service, the district reported this week in a letter to teachers and parents.

DNA-People's Legal Services filed for the restraining order on behalf of nine Utah students and their parents after Red Mesa stopped bus service for out-of-state students on March 26, stating that busing them was a violation of Arizona law.

A total of about 150 students, 130 in Utah and 20 in New Mexico, are affected, more than 10 percent of the district's enrollment.

"This is for the benefit of the school children. It should not be a focus on funding or geography. It should be about providing the best quality education for the children," stated DNA attorney Ameryn Kreiner in a press release. Kreiner and Loretta Danzuka are representing the Utah students and their parents.

Actually, however, it is about funding. If the district complies with the Navajo tribal court directive, it will violate the state law.

"There's an Arizona law that says state funding for schools must be used only on Arizona residents," said Ryan DuCharme, communications director for the Arizona Department of Education. "You can't take money that's supposed to be educating Arizona students and spend it on gasoline to bring in students from Utah and New Mexico."

A similar situation arose five years ago in the Window Rock School District, which was found to be illegally enrolling students from New Mexico.

At that time, Navajo state legislators Albert Tom and Albert Hale teamed up to pass a law that allowed Native American students residing on a reservation to enroll in a different district provided there was a compact between the two districts involved.

Window Rock and Gallup-McKinley County Schools were able to ink a compact, but none has ever been negotiated between the Red Mesa district and either San Juan School District in Utah or Central Consolidated School District in New Mexico, the two neighboring districts to Red Mesa.

DuCharme said Arizona has approached the Utah Department of Education urging it to facilitate a compact between the two districts, but in the meantime, the tribe could pick up the slack.

"One possible solution is for the district to lease the buses to the tribe, and the tribe could then transport the students and pay for their tuition," he said.

DuCharme said "it's really important that everyone knows" that the state did not initiate the investigation.

"The superintendent self-reported," he said. "However, now that we know, we have no choice but to start an investigation."

Eventually, he said, the district will have to repay the state for the tuition reimbursement it has been collecting from Arizona for the out-of-state students - about $5,000 per student per year.

But it won't have to pay for the four decades it has been violating the law.

"We can only audit back something like three years," he said, adding that he's sure the state would be willing to work out a payment plan with the district.

A special meeting of the Red Mesa School Board last Wednesday degenerated into calls for Interim Superintendent Spencer Singer's dismissal and threats to recall board members after the controversial bus withdrawal came up during public comment.

As of Monday, a directive from board member Minnie John to set a special meeting on the busing issue had not been followed by district administrators, John said.

She said an attorney at the Navajo Nation Department of Justice had told her that the board's directive lacked authority because both board President Clifford Sagg and Singer had already walked out of the meeting at that point.

Navajo Nation Attorney General D. Harrison Tsosie was out of the office Monday and did not return a phone call to confirm that advice.

In a March 26 letter to parents and guardians, Singer stated that it had come to his administration's attention that the district was illegally enrolling and transporting students who reside outside district boundaries, and buses would no longer travel across state lines to pick up students.

Last week, buses waited just inside the state boundary for parents to drop off students, but according to teachers and parents, many of the out-of-state students did not make it to class because parents lacked transportation to the meeting points. One elementary student reported about half the students in her class did not attend last week.

The loss of 150 students would be a huge financial blow to the tiny district, still recovering from the embezzlement of $880,000 by the district's former top officials in 2005 and 2006. Red Mesa has fewer than 1,000 students.

For families who live just across the Utah or New Mexico borders, the Red Mesa schools near Teec Nos Pos are considerably closer - in some cases, more than an hour closer - than their nearest in-state options, Montezuma Creek in Utah or Shiprock in New Mexico.

Chanting "There's no us without the bus," about 50 parents and students marched several miles from the Red Mesa Chapter House to the school district headquarters to protest the canceled buses, but only about 20 were allowed in the meeting as the room was about to exceed its fire code capacity.

The overflow crowd waited outside and continued to picket the meeting and demand information on the busing decision, which was not on the agenda.

School security, Navajo Nation police officers and Apache County sheriff's personnel, including Sheriff Joseph Dedman, were on hand to keep the peace. Dedman said the district had contacted his office in case the meeting became unruly, but other than some shouting, the crowd was orderly.

Rebecca Benally, a parent from Montezuma Creek, Utah, demanded to know why such an important issue hadn't been placed on the agenda, and asked why, after 40 years of busing in out-of-state students, the district had suddenly decided to enforce the law with eight weeks left in the school year.

Benally said that, unlike some students, her daughter would have a short trek to Montezuma Creek Elementary if she weren't allowed at Red Mesa, but she hesitated to enroll her there because it is a non-performing school.

"I hope you can sleep at night," she told the board, "because if so, you can sleep for me."

Red Mesa Chapter President Herman Farley presented the board with a chapter resolution urging the district to keep busing in the students.

"ááshoodí (please)!" he begged the board, "We can work on it after school ends. Why bring this up at the tail end of the school year?"

Red Mesa High School senior Tisha Yazzie said about 40 seniors are affected by the busing ban, meaning that if they can't find transportation, they can't graduate from the district they have been in since kindergarten.

"AIMS (the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) is in two weeks," she pointed out. "How are you expecting to make AYP (adequate yearly progress)?"

Board member John moved to terminate Singer, to which Sagg responded, "You are out of order."

Sagg said the "call to the public" at each meeting is mainly to listen to parents' concerns and does not require a response from the board, but John said the school's meeting policy clearly allows individual board members to respond if they so choose.

Sagg called for a motion to adjourn, and when he didn't get one, unilaterally declared the meeting adjourned and walked out.

Vice President Paula James continued to conduct the meeting for a while, and then walked out as well.

Singer at first refused to address the busing issue, saying it was an "ongoing legal matter," but then relented and addressed the crowd of about 45.

"Please understand, I want the kids here," he said. "I'm doing my best. We're talking with the state officials, I'm working with legal counsel. I'm thinking about the long picture. This jeopardizes our future."

He declined to answer a question about who brought the situation to his attention, and after listening to a few more public comments - including a call from the audience for the board to suspend him - walked out.

John noted there were still three board members left, constituting a quorum. She directed Acting Assistant Superintendent Dave Goldtooth to set up a special meeting on the busing topic, inviting the school's attorney and Apache County Superintendent of Schools Pauline Begay to explain the law and any options there were to get around it.

John also called for the interim superintendent position to be advertised.

At that point Singer came back in.

"If we do that (violate the law by continuing the busing), the state will come in and they will take it over," he said. "The board will have no power, the community will have no power."

DuCharme said it appears the district is making a good-faith effort to comply with the law and he doesn't foresee such drastic measures.

"The superintendent is very concerned about this issue," he said, referring to state school superintendent John Huppenthal. "He understands that state boundaries don't mean as much on the Navajo Nation, he understands what this district is up against, and he understands the concerns of the parents.

"We're charged with upholding state law, but the bottom line is we want to help those students get a quality education."

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