Board votes to close 3 rez schools

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

GALLUP, May 11, 2012

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T he Gallup-McKinley County School district will have three less schools this coming September.

The district's school board voted 3-2 Thursday to close down three schools to save $2.7 million next year. The schools that will be closed at the end of this school year are Navajo Elementary, Crownpoint Middle School and Tohatchi Middle School.

Kim Brown, the school's assistant superintendent for business, told the school board that they face a shortfall of $5.6 million because of cutbacks at the federal level to the Impact Aid and Title I programs.

Impact Aid provides funds to school districts with large amounts of federal lands, such as reservations, that are not subject to property taxes, the usual source of school funding. Title I ensures that disadvantaged children receive a quality education.

The Gallup-McKinley district saved some $3 million by making cutbacks in programs and laying off a few teachers and school employees. The district's central office will also see staffing reduced.

But that still left a shortfall of $2.5 million, leading to the drastic action of closing the three schools.

The three schools were chosen because they are not operating anywhere near their capacity of students so moving students to other schools is a lot easier than in city schools, which are already at near capacity.

For example, at Navajo Elementary the students will attend the middle school and the 7th and 8th graders will attend the high school.

The middle school at Navajo can hold 328 students and under the plan the number of students will be 265, still well below the school's capacity. The high school, which can hold 364 students, will have only 230 under the new arrangement, again well below capacity.

At Tohatchi and Crownpoint, students also will attend the elementary school and the 7th and 8th graders will move up to the high school.

Closing down each school, said Superintendent Ray Arsenault, will save the district $900,000 for a total savings of $2.7 million.

Making that decision, however, was not an easy one. Students from Crownpoint and Navajo packed the school board chambers Thursday to plead with the board not to close their schools.

Rylee DeGroat, a 7th grader at Crownpoint-Mid, said moving the 7th and 8th graders to the high school will only mean that they will be bullied by the older students.

She pointed out that Crownpoint Mid is one of the few schools in the district that made AYP (adequate yearly progress) and that it has a long history of producing quality sports teams and students.

"Our school is great and we all love it there," she said, adding that 113 of the students, parents and teachers had signed a petition asking that their school be saved.

Two of the three Navajo members of the board - Chee Smith Jr. and Kevin Mitchell - both opposed closing down the schools, saying they felt the district had to take more time to look at other options and to get feedback from the Navajo Nation.

The two non-Navajo members, both who represent the city, voted in favor, saying the district had no choice and it was facing a deadline from the state to approve a budget for next year.

The key vote came from Mavis Price, the board's president, who said that this was one of the hardest decisions she had to make as a school board member.

In fact, she was the last to vote and she hesitated for almost a minute and finally just said, "Sorry." She began to tear up and a member of the audience called upon her as a Navajo to support the other two Navajo board members.

"I realize that I am a Navajo," she said after the meeting was over. "But I had to do what I thought was in the best interests of the students."

She said she hoped that the closings would be temporary and once the district finds extra funds, she would be the first to call for a vote to reverse the decision.

But it was still a difficult decision for many of the students who attended the meeting. After the vote, they moved to the lobby and a couple broke down in tears.

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