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Virus delays settling of school’s status

WINDOW ROCK

A week after the Wide Ruins School Board was supposed to show why the school shouldn’t be taken over by the Division of Diné Education, the board placed the school’s principal on administrative leave and reinstated its business manager, whom the principal had earlier placed on leave.

According to Wilhelmina Francis, a community member helping to organize a recall of school board president Louise Nelson, the action occurred last Tuesday at a board meeting. She said the board cited financial mismanagement by Principal Rachel Maho.

Nelson did not reply to a Facebook Messenger message to confirm that, and the school did not respond to a message left at the front desk asking either for the board minutes or to be put in touch with a board member.

Maho, reached by telephone, declined to comment on the record other than to confirm she was on administrative leave and deny the charges against her. She stated that a rudimentary audit of the school’s finances would clear her.

She also said the board had violated the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 restrictions by holding an in-person meeting at the school and sending three people into her small office to take her keys, her work cell phone and escort her out. “They put my health at risk,” she said.

The tiny grant school of fewer than 120 students has been suffering for years from abysmal academic scores and what DODE legislative analyst Matthew Tso called “one of the worst audits on the Navajo Nation.” It has been squeaking by on one- and two-month grant reauthorizations since last April and is under a laundry list of sanctions.

After the school’s reauthorization hearing before the Navajo Nation Board of Education in January, the school’s attorney resigned. Mano says she’s the school’s eighth principal in less than six years.

Francis’s group, which includes parents, former school employees and community members, was hoping the NNBOE would turn the school over to DODE on April 17, after a scheduled due process hearing. But the hearing was postponed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recall effort is also on hold. “We got all the signatures we need,” said Francis, “but the election office is closed, so we have no place to turn them in.” Her biggest fear is that the Navajo Nation Council will cancel local elections this year “and we’ll be stuck with these ladies for another term.”

Meanwhile the Wide Ruins school board gave a report to the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, which, according to Darrick Franklin of DODE’s Office of Accountability and Compliance, instructed the board not to engage in any “retaliation” while it awaited the hearing. Both Maho and Francis say Maho’s ouster is retaliation because Maho met privately with both the NNBOE and HEHS, at their request, to answer questions about the school.

The school was taken over by DODE in 2015, but according to the community group, the board promptly fired the interim principal after the school was returned to the community and both academics and accountability started to slide again.

Grant schools, which are run by local school boards with a yearly grant from the Bureau of Indian Education, are subject to periodic review by the tribe, which has the power to reauthorize or deny their grants. Schools that fail to meet academic or fiscal standards can be assumed by DODE until the NNBOE is satisfied the problems have been rectified.



About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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