WR superintendent: No crisis here

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 16, 2013

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We are not in crisis," the beleaguered superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District said Wednesday.

Deborah Jackson-Dennison, who came back in 2009 to run the school district, said media headlines in recent days indicating that the district is facing a crisis are completely inaccurate.

She and members of the district's school board have been vilified, criticized and accused of having no respect for the teachers or parents in the district ever since January when the district began putting out word that the district would have to do massive cuts in its budget next year because of severe funding reduction.

Since then there have been reports that the district was going to close Sawmill Elementary to save money and was planning to riff as many as 35 teachers and numerous administrative staff, bus drivers and cooks as well to bring the district's budget in line next year with expected revenue.

As a result of all of the controversy, a number of teachers in the district have reportedly begun making plans to find jobs elsewhere and at last week's board meeting, district officials confirmed that 14 teachers in the weeks prior to that meeting had given notice that they would not be coming back. This is in addition to the more than 15 teachers who had announced earlier in the year that they were going to retire or had plans to go elsewhere.

At that meeting, Brad Thorsted, the head boys basketball coach and history teacher at Window Rock High, said he had decided to take a job in another district because he couldn't get the district to give him an indication about whether they would be offering him a contract next year.

A parent who has children going to Window Rock High and who asked that her name not be used because of fear that district officials would retaliate against her said that she has also been receiving reports from teachers that they are being watched and are being bullied by their supervisors in an effort to encourage them to find jobs elsewhere next year.

Jackson-Dennison said that she has heard these accusations and others that indicate that she and others in the district don't respect the teachers and have undertaken a pattern of bullying and threats.

"That's not true," she said, adding that if anyone is being bullied it is her and the school board members who are trying to come up with a plan to meet next year's cutbacks without hurting the quality of education in the district.

"I respect the teachers," she said, adding that what the district doesn't need as it tries to resolve current financial problems is a group of people "blasting district officials and using bullying tactics" to try to get their way.

At the center of all of this is the fact that the Window Rock District, like many school districts in Arizona and throughout the nation, is looking at having to sharply reduce its budget next year to meet revenue expectation.

The Window Rock District is looking at a $20 million budget next year, down from $24 million this year, and because of expected future cuts, will have to eventually get its budget down to a level of about $17 million.

Part of the problem has been the reductions in federal funds called for by the sequester and reductions in federal grants. Then there have been problems with the monies that the county had invested in the stock market and the fact that the district continues to see its student enrollment decrease every year.

The reduction in the student population has resulted in a loss of enrollment of between 60 and 70 students a year annually for the past several years. This is something that all of the public school districts on the reservation have been reporting as well as off-reservation districts like McKinley and San Juan counties.

All of this means, said Jackson-Dennison, that the district must find ways of providing a quality education at a reduced cost and to cut expenses in ways that won't affect the education process.

That was the thinking about closing down Sawmill Elementary and having the students go to elementary schools in Fort Defiance which have classroom space available because of the reduction in student populations.

At the same time, she said, the district has been looking at creating "rubrics" that would focus on removing teachers who are substandard or who have not been doing a good job teaching their students.

Many of those who have already announced that they are leaving, she said, have done so because they realize that they would have problems in meeting the district's standards and probably would not find themselves being offered contracts next year.

She stressed that the district does not want to lose good teachers and pointed to one principal who has gone out of her way to discourage some of the excellent teachers in her school from leaving.

The good news in all of this is that because of all of these announcements, the district will not have to lay off any teachers next year. In fact, the district will probably be looking to hire teachers in certain fields, like math and special education, areas that the district has had a hard time filling in the past.

She said she expects that the number of teachers in the district will go down from 339 next year to 294 because of all of the retirements and resignations,

She said that the district had also been planning to reduce the number of administrative and classified positions in the district by 25 but it looks like that number will be reduced to 14.

"We are not filling any administrative position and as people leave, we will be asking administrators to take over added duties," Jackson-Dennison said.

For example, the business manager will be doing that job as well as the job of the assistant business manager. The human resources director will be doing that job as well as being in charge of federal projects.

As district officials continue looking at ways to reduce expenses, the district needs to have parents look at the changes objectively and stop criticizing just because they don't want to see any changes made, the superintendent said.

For the most part, Jackson-Dennison said she feels parents are waiting to see what happens. She pointed out that at its last meeting on April 29, fewer than 50 people showed up which isn't that many when you realize the student population in the district is 2,330.

"We are listening to people's concerns and suggestions," she said, pointing out at that April 29, one parent said they would like to see the 6th grade included in the elementary school and not with the higher grades.

District officials considered that concern and as a result, an announcement is going to be made at the next meeting on May 29 going along with that suggestion.

The changes that are now being done, she said, will ultimately work to the advantage of the school district by trimming away a lot of the fat. She added that placing emphasis on good teachers will also improve the educational quality of the district that will translate into students getting better scores on state-wide tests in the future.

"I'm excited about the changes that are happening," she said.