N.M. office delays decision on split of Central Schools

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, May 31, 2012

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C entral Consolidated School District - the third largest school district serving Native Americans in the United States - will have to wait at least two more weeks for the Public Education Department's verdict on whether it would be split into two districts or not.

On Friday, William Brown, general counsel for the New Mexico Public Education Department, sent a letter to the district and Children First, a Kirtland base group in support of splitting the district, explaining the delay.

Brown's letter comes after New Mexico education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera promised at a public hearing on May 16 that she would have a final decision by May 29. The decision, she said, would decide whether the 90-percent Navajo school district would be split, allowing for the possible creation of a Kirtland school district.

Skandera held the public hearing in response to a petition filed by Children First, which has proposed two options for a split: at the Navajo Reservation boundary or at Ojo Amarillo, which is on the Navajo Nation.

At the hearing, which was held at San Juan College in Farmington, Skandera said she would make a decision within 10 days of May 16, pursuant to the state's petition law.

In the letter addressed to the district and Children First, Brown said state law doesn't require PED to make a decision within 10 days when considering the creation of a new school district.

"Although we had intended to issue the decision within 10 days of the hearing, that is, by no later than May 29th, that 10-day timeline was taken from the provision of law applicable only to consolidation of school districts," Brown wrote. "There is no mandatory deadline in law when the PED must issue its decision."

According to Brown, a final decision will be issued no later than June 12 in part because PED had yet to receive a certified transcript of the May 16 hearing from a court reporter.

"The date of delivery of the certified transcript is beyond the control of the PED," he wrote.

As of Friday, a draft decision was 50 percent completed, Brown said.

Byron Manning, the designated spokesman for Children First, said PED's request for an extension shows that the proposal to split is not an "open and shut no way case."

"We'll sit and wait," said Manning, explaining that the data and research Children First presented to PED for the creation of a smaller school district is in the best interest of public education.

Based on research findings, Manning said a smaller district between 1,500 and 3,300 students is the optimal size. A smaller district, he said, would also increase parent involvement and graduation rates. Overall, smaller districts are "a smart return on investment," he said.

CCSD board President Matthew Tso said the district was OK with PED's extension.

"Quite honestly, I don't think it's going to change the outcome of this particular decision because the other side didn't prove their case," he said on Tuesday.

"The burden was on them," he said, adding that Manning and Children First formed in response to a May 17, 2011, board decision that moved the Kirtland business office to Shiprock.

"We have a $100 million dollar budget," Tso said. "Most of that is generated by Navajo students. Having to split the district would result in a financially weakened district. The bond rating for both districts would go down as well. It would be worst off if a split happens."

Also on Tuesday, the Navajo Nation Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee unanimously passed legislation opposing the split.

If PED grants a split, the proposed Kirtland school district would become the 90th public school district in New Mexico.

Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs/St. Michaels), chair of the committee, sponsored the legislation, which has the support of the Nenanhnezad and San Juan chapters and the Northern Navajo Agency Council.

Hale is scheduled to meet with Skandera on Friday to discuss the committee's opposition.

In addition to the committee, CCSD also has the support of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. On May 21, the commission unanimously passed a resolution opposing the split and urging PED to comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when making a decision.

With passage of the legislation and resolution, Tso said, he was pleased to have the support of the Navajo Nation.

"This action by the Navajo Nation to stand with our district and children sends a very strong message to the state of New Mexico, Governor (Susana) Martinez and 'Children First' that the Navajo Nation means business and will take all actions to oppose a split because it is not in the best interests of anyone," he said.

When asked about the Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee unanimously passing legislation opposing the split, Manning said, "It's a noisemaker but last Monday was the last day for information to be considered. We're confident in meeting the state's criteria in creating a new district."

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