‘Out of compliance’: DODE directs Many Farms Community School board to replace top administrators
Part 2 in a series
If the Many Farms Community School board complies with a new Department of Diné Education directive, Interim Principal Janet Slowman-Chee and Interim Business Manager Marleita Begay could be replaced as soon as Aug. 11 because they do not possess the proper Arizona credentials required to run the school.
Both have been accused by existing and former employees and parents of alleged financial, payroll, personnel and health and safety policy violations, such as lacking a COVID-19 policy and a school reopening plan as well as failing to communicate with parents and staff.
As an example of what families are going through, on Wednesday morning, concerned parent Jennifer Redmoustache told the Navajo Times that she’s been driving her 10-year-old son back and forth to school because his bus arrives at 5:30 a.m. in the morning and brings him home twelve hours later at 5:30 p.m.
This is because there are only two bus drivers at the school who are doing two routes each in the morning and afternoon to transport about 160 students.
“The bus driver gets going at about 4:30 a.m.,” said Redmoustache. “She says she has 81 students on her little bus.”
Redmoustache said her other concern is COVID-19 safety because social distancing protocols are not being observed.
“To me, CDC guidelines are also not being recognized on the bus,” she said. “Now there’s two kids who tested positive and they haven’t informed us about it. I found out through one of the staff, but I guess it’s a ‘hush-hush.’”
Redmoustache said she confronted one of the office aides about why COVID-19 guidelines are not being observed and the aide told her that the virus is no longer known as COVID-19, but as the “common cold.”
DODE: School ‘at risk’
In an Aug. 4 letter, DODE Superintendent Harold Begay formally gave the MFCS Board notice that the school was out of compliance with “educational credential requirements” because Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay are not licensed or qualified with the proper state of Arizona credentials.
“The school board’s actions to appoint Dr. Slowman-Chee as the chief school administrator will jeopardize the school’s accreditation, which also places the school at significant risk of loss,” he said.
Harold Begay stated the school board’s actions of directing the operations of the school through Slowman-Chee or Marleita Begay is also a violation.
“Because recent board actions implicate violations of law, applicable regulations, and will severely impair the educational process in the Many Farms Community School, Inc., I am directing the Many Farms Community School, Inc. governing board to take immediate action (via a special or emergency meeting) to appoint a licensed, qualified chief school administrator(s) no later than the end of the day on Thursday, August 11, 2022,” stated Harold Begay.
Non-compliance with the directive could serve as grounds for DODE to take further measures, including possible assumption of control of the school.
“The department intends to take steps in accordance with our legal options unless you can inform me that the board has convened a special/emergency meeting to address these matters,” stated Harold Begay.
‘Flying by the seat of our pants’
This comes after many parents and staff contacted the Navajo Times expressing outrage over how chaotic the first week of school, which started on Aug. 3, has been.
“It’s horrible. I just feel that there’s poor leadership there,” parent Valissa Nez told the Navajo Times.
“My concern is how the principal and the board members are running the school,” said Nez. “It’s just so unorganized. There’s no communication whatsoever with the parents. No emails, no phone calls, no mass communications, no nothing.”
Several contributors to this article have requested anonymity because of fear of retaliation from Slowman-Chee, Marleita Begay and/or members of the school board.
“The school bus situation is a complete mess,” said an employee who asked to remain anonymous. “We really have no direction. We’re just kind of flying by the seat of our pants.”
Several teachers and staff told the Navajo Times that during a recent back-to-school staff orientation “welcome address,” MFCS Board member Sharon Gorman scolded and criticized them.
“She said that we were really an embarrassment and that she was ashamed of us,” said one employee. “She yelled at us, all the staff. It was awful.”
“She said if you guys don’t go by chain of command, you guys are going to be out of your jobs,” said another employee. “She threatened all of us!”
Meanwhile, in a document sent to DODE by a former MFCS employee shared with Navajo Times, under oversight of the board, Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay are accused of a long list of alleged financial violations to BIE and MFCS financial policies & procedures and bylaws.
The detailed account alleges that Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay are running the school without an school year 2022-23 operating budget, have been violating journal entry procedures for benefits/compensation for employees, violating procurement standards and open bid policies for contracts, and violating travel/expense policies.
Furthermore, the document alleges that Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay have been violating payroll procedures by signing off for each other on additional hours past 40 per week without justification, have received large stipends on top of their high salaries, and have claimed leave with pay even though temporary employees are not eligible for annual leave, overtime pay, stipends or travel per diem.
Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay have not responded to requests for comment from Navajo Times.
Board Chair: ‘Everything is fine’
As reported in Part I of this story (“‘Turmoil and chaos’ at Many Farms school,” July 21, 2022), Many Farms Chapter officials and Delegate Kee Allen Begay already heard pleas from concerned parents and employees a few weeks ago.
They demanded quick action be taken prior to school starting on Aug. 3 to address alleged “nepotism, favoritism, unfair hiring, and retaliation,” COVID-19 safety violations and alleged “misuse of power and funds” by Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay.
In response, Many Farms Chapter quickly passed a resolution on July 11 requesting immediate intervention from DODE.
Parents and staff testified that they started noticing dramatic changes at MFCS school when Slowman-Chee took the reins more than six months ago, and Marleita Begay stepped into the interim business manager position in March.
Administrative changes swiftly implemented by Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay included changes to the organizational chart, pay cuts, demotions, eliminating positions without proper notice, and eliminating members of the school’s internal executive leadership team and emergency response team.
Many stakeholders have noted that a very similar situation happened when Marleita Begay was business manager at Wide Ruins Community School in March 2020 where she was accused of taking over daily operations of the school without proper credentials.
After a series of hearings and testimony from irate parents and staff, Marleita Begay was ultimately removed from her duties at WRCS as part of a corrective action plan, according to DODE.
After receiving the Many Farms Chapter resolution requesting intervention, in a July 18 letter to MFCS, DODE Assistant Superintendent Maria Del-Carmen Moffett requested copies of the board’s agendas and minutes from January 2020 on, documentation pertaining to approval of employment for Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay, and organizational charts for 2020, 2021 and 2022, to be delivered by July 25th.
However, DODE representatives Senior Education Specialist Lavida Maestas and Legislative Assistant Matthew Tso confirmed on Monday, Aug. 8, that no response to Del Carmen-Moffett’s request from MFCS was ever received.
When reached by phone on Aug. 2, Board Chair Juanita Contreras told Navajo Times, “It was sent last week, when they requested it. That’s all I know. I was given a copy of it. Everything is fine.”
Before hanging up on this reporter, Contreras said the board has “a company” looking into “all of this.”
“We’re just going to leave it at that,” she said. “That’s why we’re not saying anything.”
‘Swept under the rug’
Another former employee, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told the Navajo Times that Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay never even applied for the positions they’re in.
“The board hired these two,” she said. “I’m not sure how they found them. They absolutely did not go through the correct hiring process.”
For this reason, she advised the board that Marleita Begay should not start employment at MFCS.
“I was very adamant that her application is incomplete, her adjudication is not complete, she doesn’t have a favorable background, but all of that was swept under the rug,” the employee said.
She said when Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay came in, they immediately started making drastic changes.
“People were demoted or given pay cuts for no reason, without justification,” she said. “They targeted certain people.”
They also let go of two employees without proper notices, violating the personnel policy, she said.
In the meantime, Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay received stipends, approved by the board, in the amounts of $7,000 and $5,000 for supposedly “cleaning up HR.”
“I think what these two did was they came in and they were just power-hungry, they were money-hungry,” she said. “They just wanted to make everybody miserable.”
The employee said she believes the board should be thanking employees for what they do instead of threatening their jobs.
“I feel that these board members are so comfortable that they know that they’re going to get away with certain things,” she said. “It’s not right. It’s not fair to these staff members who are truly there for these students, for their communities.”
The employee said there used to be COVID-19 policy and a reopening plan was in place before Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay came on board.
“The reopening plan was in compliance with the Navajo Nation guidelines, the CDC guidelines and recommendations from IHS,” she said. “When Dr. Chee came in and Marleita came in, they just took that away.”
‘It was a good school’
Parent Valissa Nez said on the first day of school on Aug. 3, she drove her three children to school because they didn’t receive notice about when the buses were going to arrive, what the routes would be, and who the bus driver was.
“This year, there was no information whatsoever,” she said. “Even when I called, I did not get any information on what their plan was going to be for the first day.”
Nez said when she got to the school with her children on day one at about 7:25 a.m., no staff were present.
“There were already parents dropping their kids off, but there was nobody at the door and nobody directing what we were supposed to do,” she said.
When one employee finally arrived, Nez said families were told to wait in the gymnasium until the back-to-school assembly started, which parents had not been informed of.
“The assembly that was held that morning was also very unorganized,” she said. “It was pretty much just a lecture to the students. The kids were getting very restless and impatient. At 9:15, the students were still waiting in the gym, waiting to be called to their classrooms.”
Nez also found out that students are being given a new curriculum, which parents were also not informed of.
“The preparation for this curriculum is not even ready,” she said. “It seems like the teachers were just thrown that curriculum — they had very little time to prepare for it.”
Nez said she was really saddened to hear that some of the teachers that her children knew and trusted left the school because of how things were being run by Slowman-Chee.
She said in all the years her three children have been at the school, she’s never seen anything like what’s been happening now.
“It was a good school,” she said. “Beginning of this year, it seems like things just fell apart. I’ve never been so concerned about my childrens’ safety and well-being.”