Gridlocked: District fails to resolve busing issue

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Navajo Times

NASCHITTI, N.M., Oct. 24, 2013

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T he gridlock between Central Consolidated School District and Gallup McKinley County Schools continues, as both school boards failed to settle a transportation agreement Tuesday that will now have to be settled by the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Having the New Mexico Public Education Department settle the bus brouhaha between the districts was the last resort for tribal and state leaders, or as New Mexico State Rep. Sandra Jeff (D-Crownpoint) put it, the lack of an agreement could "open a can of worms" unfavorable to both school districts at the legislature.

On Tuesday, both school boards convened for a special meeting at Naschitti Elementary.

The agenda, written by CCSD, included possible memoranda of agreement on the transportation boundary for the communities of Naschitti and Crystal, N.M.

But bringing Crystal into the discussion caught GMCS officials off guard.

They said they had come prepared only to discuss the MOA they provided to the CCSD school board on the Naschitti bus boundary issue.

GMCS Board Member Kevin Mitchell, who represents constituents from the Naschitti area, thought discussion would focus on whether GMCS is allowed to bus students in Naschitti -- CCSD territory - to attend GMCS public schools in Tohatchi, N.M., or pay parents feeder route money for bringing their students to the San Juan-McKinley county bus stop, five miles south of Naschitti, to catch the bus to attend school in Tohatchi.

"Hopefully, we're here to change the laws, but the main point is to decide on feeder route money or allow us to come into Naschitti to pick up students," Mitchell said.

"An MOU needs to determine one of the two."

But that wasn't the case.

Instead of discussing their MOA, the CCSD board presented the rival school district with an MOA of its own that put stipulations on GMCS that superintendent Frank Chiapetti and members of the GMCS school board disagreed with.

The CCSD's MOA prohibited GMCS from crossing into CCSD territory in Naschitti to pick up students, and would have also prevented the district from paying parents feeder route money because state law states that these students "by choice" attend public schools outside their district.

"To do this, we don't need an MOA," Chiapetti told CCSD Board members Christina Aspaas, Lupita White, Randy Manning and Matthew Tso, after Aspaas read the CCSD MOA into the record.

Fellow CCSD board member Hoskie Benally was unavailable for the joint school board meeting because he was sick, according to board president White.

"I don't think this is what the community is requesting," Chiapetti added.

In August and September, the superintendent learned from the community and District 14 Council president Olin Kieyoomia, via chapter resolutions and supporting resolutions from District 14 chapters and the Fort Defiance Agency Council as well as from the Department of Diné Education, of the desire for GMCS to provide bus service for students who currently walk or drive the five miles to the county line to catch the bus to Tohatchi.

Children walking along busy U.S. Highway 491 has been an ongoing safety issue for the last 30 to 40 years.

In addition to Chiapetti's views, GMCS Board President Bruce Tempest added that the issue is also about parent choice.

He noted that GMCS has signed MOAs with Grants Cibola County Schools and Cuba Independent Schools.

"They pick up some of our students, we pick up some of theirs," he said, adding that there is already a precedent with PED Secretary Hanna Skandera allowing GMCS to pay parents in those areas feeder route money to transport their students to the bus stop.

"Bottom line is it's parent's choice," Tempest added.

Even CCSD Board Member Randy Manning agreed that an MOA involving feeder route money isn't breaking the law.

"As I read this, I have the same opinion (as) GMCS," Manning said about the CCSD MOA drafted by district attorneys. "All of that in there is hot air."

As Chiapetti pointed out, Manning thought the joint meeting with GMCS was about a possible agreement allowing them to either bus students from Naschitti or pay parents feeder route money.

"If we're looking at the safety of the students ... as far as the law, if both boards agree to a feeder route, that's not breaking the law," he added.

Manning's biggest concerns, however, were understanding why some parents and students from Naschitti have decided to attend school in the Tohatchi area, and not CCSD schools in the Naschitti or Newcomb, N.M., areas.

Tso repeatedly told Chiapetti and GMCS board members Joe Menini, Mitchell and Tempest "the law is the law," and the law only allows for transportation agreements between two school districts because of "impractical" geographic reasons -- not based on parental choice.

(GMCS board members Mavis Price and Titus Nez were also unavailable for the joint meeting.) Instead of the GMCS agreement, the former CCSD board president, who now serves as the vice president, advocated the CCSD agreement.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to respecting the law," Tso said. "Whether we like it or not, the law is the law. It's clear as day."

The CCSD MOA Tso advocated eventually went to a gridlock vote, with Aspaas and Tso voting in favor of it, while White and Manning voted against it.

White voted against it because she wanted to insert more language into the agreement to make it more amendable to both parties.

Given that GMCS has MOA agreements with Cuba Independent Schools and Grants Cibola County Schools, Aspaas wanted to know how GMCS achieved those respective agreements.

Aspaas also expressed that this whole bus brouhaha is more about money than safety as Chiapetti claimed.

"I truly believe safety is used as an excuse," she said. "I know the needs of our district and it comes down to money."

More or less serving as mediators in an effort to help both parties come to a consensus, Jeff and Navajo Nation Council delegate Leonard Tsosie (Baca/Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake), who was also present, recommended the school boards adopt an MOA to prevent state interference.

In her testimony to the joint school boards, Jeff advocated for the safety of the students.

Not only did she say safety is important but that the lack of an MOA would "open a can of worms" at the legislature level and possibly result in the districts losing funding to urban schools from legislators who will advocate to take those funds.

"It's important for both parties to come together," said Jeff, who represents constituents in both school districts and counties. "It's feasible to do an MOA."

Jeff, who co-chairs the Indian Affairs Committee with Sen. John Pinto, added that her committee's legal counsel even said an MOA was most feasible, instead of PED interference.

"You can't put money on the price of a child," Jeff pleaded.

As for Tsosie, he thought that the most reasonable solution was to listen to the plea from the community, which is to resolve the bus transportation issue for the students.

Like Jeff, he recommended the boards adopt an MOA and implement it for one year to see how it goes.

The tribal legislator also noticed the MOA provided by CCSD only reaffirms the status quo and doesn't resolve the community's plea.

"We should accommodate the wishes of the parents and kids," he said. "I heard the pleas and I support the pleas. We shouldn't let young children walk the street or highway."

Tsosie also was surprised to see Manning, a non-Navajo, support the motion to adopt the GMCS agreement, and the lack of support coming from its Navajo board members, Aspaas and Tso.

White seconded Manning's motion to adopt the GMCS agreement.

"We should be a lot more understanding," Tsosie said to Aspaas and Tso of the transportation issues Navajo children face to attend school.

Aspaas denied she was ever against any Navajo community, contrary to Tsosie's thinking.

In response, she said the needs of the community are addressed with the educational system currently in place at all CCSD schools, including the Naschitti and Newcomb schools.

"It should be easier to attend CCSD," she said, adding, "They don't need to walk five miles."

In between Aspaas' queries about the number of residents that are located in Naschitti, Kieyoomia provided emotional testimony on how the bus issue came to be and the tragedy of a GMCS student losing her mother in an auto accident after being dropped off at the county line to attend school in Tohatchi.

"It's 2013," Kieyoomia stated. "Why is it difficult to get an education?" He added that the very issue of students or parents getting hurt or killed while walking or driving on the highway is what he hoped would never happen.

And, sadly, it did, he said.

"There's a family at home with no mom," he pleaded adding that the two registered sex offenders in Naschitti, expansion of U.S. Highway 491, high incidences of driving while intoxicated, packs of wild dogs and designated flooding areas on the highway are enough to qualify as "impractical" geographical reasons to send GMCS buses into the community.

Chiapetti also added that if he hadn't stopped the illegal busing he allowed for nine days in September, to which CCSD objected, he thinks that the death of the mother wouldn't have happened.

He holds himself accountable, he said.

These emotional pleas, however, didn't help the discussion veer into an agreement.

After three hours of heated debate and a lot of going nowhere, the joint meeting ultimately dissolved.

The Gallup McKinley board threw in the towel after the CCSD's second deadlocked vote.

Board member Mitchell motioned for the GMCS school board to adjourn.

Menini offered the second.

"We had a chance tonight to make history, but they blew it," Mitchell told the Navajo Times .

Mitchell added that he doesn't understand why Aspaas and Tso would allow a 40-year-old law to continue to plague the safety and quality of education students would receive through an MOA. Asked what would happen next given the impasse, Chiapetti said the next steps are the PED resolution process.

According to language in the GMCS MOA, if an agreement isn't reached between both districts, then it's up to the PED and Skandera to determine it.

"We will make an appeal to the State of New Mexico," Chiapetti said. "Santa Fe will make a local governance decision."

Council delegate Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs/St. Michaels), chair of the Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee, is aware of the GMCS vs.

CCSD bus boundary issue and is also ready to introduce legislation at the Council to request PED resolve the issue.

The appeal to the PED is a path White and Tso are fine with as well.

White, who last week replaced Tso as the board's new president, said it's best for the state to handle the bus boundary issue.

"We've been trying to come to some sort of agreement," White said, adding that necessary changes will come out of the decision whichever way is determined by Skandera.

Added Tso, "Now, it's going to Santa Fe. It is what it is. We didn't create the law or the boundary. We just came into the picture."

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