Impact aid on the chopping block

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, April 12, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

At a meeting for Arizona school districts that rely on federal impact aid, Piñon School Board member Bessie Allen shows a pie chart that reveals the percentage of Piñon's budget that comes from impact aid. It's the green portion of the graph, about 42 percent of the total. The districts are trying to head off proposed cuts to impact aid.

Just as Arizona finally surfaces from a sea of red ink, the state's public school districts on the Navajo Nation now face a threat from a different direction - potential huge budget cuts by the federal government.

Administration and school board leaders from some of the 15 Arizona school districts that receive "impact aid" - direct payments from the federal government to compensate for being located on non-taxable public land - met in Chinle Tuesday to discuss ways in which to avert the looming crunch.

Next week, six school board members from the Piñon, Chinle, Window Rock and Kayenta school districts will go to Washington, D.C., to attend a federal outreach conference and lobby for the preservation of impact aid funding, which typically comprises about 40 percent of a reservation school district's budget.

This puts the school spokespeople in the ironic position of lobbying for the almost universally despised No Child Left Behind Act, which is at the moment the only piece of legislation authorizing the funding of impact aid - albeit at 2010 levels.

Another possibility is to sever impact aid from No Child Left Behind, which is why the board members are also pushing HR 1342, The Local Taxpayer Relief Act. The bill updates the formulas for computing the amount of impact aid allocated to each district, and reauthorizes the funding.

Unlike No Child Left Behind, HB 1342 is "bipartisanly supported," according to Piñon School District Business Manager Doug Vaughan. "It's totally non-controversial. Nobody has any problem with it."

So non-controversial is the bill, in an election year where every politician is scrambling for a glamorous crusade, that it seems to be falling through the cracks.

Whiteriver School Superintendent Jeffrey Fuller, attending the meeting by conference call, reported he was surfing legislative websites and one analyst was giving HB 1342 a 2 percent chance of passing.

So far, in Arizona's congressional delegation, only Reps. Raul Grijalva, R-Tucson, and Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, are supporting it. The school board delegation is planning to champion it during their presentation in Washington.

Armed with petitions and chapter and school board resolutions from throughout the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation, the local lobbyists also plan to oppose President Obama's proposed 2013 budget, which would eliminate impact aid funding for schools on military bases.

"Aside from the fact that it's not ethical to do that to any children," said Vaughan, "it looks like a first step in dismantling impact aid altogether."

Impact aid was instituted in 1950, when it became apparent public school districts on military bases, tribal lands, national parks and national forests were lagging far behind those in areas where a portion of the property taxes automatically went to the schools.

In essence, the U.S. government compensates the affected school districts for not being able to collect tax money to pay for their needs.

"If I'm in an off-reservation district and I'm having trouble with funding, I go to the property owners and say, 'I need more money to educate your child,'" Vaughan explained. "It's not a hard sell. But I have to go to my U.S. congressman. Chances are he doesn't have a child in Piñon school district."

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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