Weary Wide Ruins community awaits fate of school
WIDE RUINS, Ariz.
In a due process hearing scheduled for Aug. 21, the Wide Ruins Community School governing board and administration will have to defend the school’s performance amidst ongoing allegations of nepotism, favoritism, unfair hiring and firing practices, and retaliation against those who dare to speak up.
In the latest round of what has been described as another form of retaliation, several parents said they never received re-enrollment packets for their children even though online school started on Aug. 3.
Savannah Stanley said last week she never heard from the school regarding re-enrolling her son and was surprised to hear that school had started.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said.
What isn’t a surprise, she said, is that the board has consistently done its best to alienate parents.
“I have not heard from the school,” she said. “I have not gotten a call. I haven’t gotten a re-enrollment packet. I haven’t gotten anything.”
Stanley blamed the “upper-level people” at the school.
“They’re just sitting back, popping their popcorn, entertaining themselves,” said Stanley. “They’re just there to collect a paycheck.”
Days before the first day of school, Jessica Allen received a letter from school Principal Jeannie Lewis advising her that her two daughters, who have been attending WRCS since 2018, are not eligible to enroll if they do not have a Certificate of Indian Blood.
“She’s saying because the kids do not have a CIB themselves then they’re ineligible,” said Allen. “I find this so disheartening.”
In the past two years, Allen had submitted the “Title VII Student Eligibility Certification” with her member enrollment number for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community that was approved by the “higher-ups” at Bureau of Indian Education and had been sufficient for her girls to enroll at WRCS.
Allen and her husband Lionel Allen, who is Navajo, have been speaking out about what they consider wrongdoings of the WRCS school board and administration for years. They believe that is why her daughters have been denied enrollment.
The Allens have five children altogether who have been raised in the Wide Ruins community.
“I know this is pure retaliation,” said Allen. “They’re hiding behind policies and regulations. I feel like they’re just trying to get rid of us. I believe the business manager and one of the school board members is behind this.”
“All of our children have been through a lot of changes due to COVID and this is yet another change,” stated Allen in a July 30 complaint to the Department of Diné Education and Navajo Nation Board of Education. “The school board and administration were told by HEHSC (the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee) to not retaliate against the parents and the school is doing just that.”
DODE’s Office of Diné Accountability and Compliance Manager Darrick Franklin responded to Allen on July 30 saying he would look into the matter and request guidance from the BIE. However, 12 days later, there was still no clarification from Franklin, leaving the Allen family in limbo.
Meanwhile, Jessica Allen contacted the Chinle BIE office that advised her there is no reason why her daughters shouldn’t be allowed to enroll because they had all of the documentation and her children were already accounted for.
Allen said the former WRCS registrar also confirmed that her kids are eligible to attend the school.
Holly Collateta, a former Wide Ruins school nurse, said in all the years she worked there she never heard of the school having a policy for children to provide a CIB for enrollment.
Collateta said she took her son out of the WRCS because of what has been going on with the school board and administration.
‘They don’t care for authority’
In a presentation to the Health, Education and Human Services Committee in May, DODE Senior Education Specialist Lavida Maestas shared that WRCS has a long history of not complying with federal, state and tribal laws in various areas of its operation.
She added that the school board has disregarded corrective actions advised by DODE program staff and has not addressed sanctions outlined in its reauthorization resolution ordered by the Navajo Nation Board of Education, which include issues relating to academic plans and performance, finances, and accreditation.
BIE grant schools like WRCS that do not meet academic or financial management standards can have their funds denied, or can be taken over by DODE, with the NNBOE as oversight.
Last February, NNBOE notified the WRCS governing board of a due process hearing which was meant to be held on April 17, but was postponed due to the Nation’s COVID-19 emergency orders.
At the time, HEHSC instructed the board not to engage in retaliation while awaiting the rescheduled hearing.
Now the due process hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 21, to be held by Zoom conference, according to parents.
Maestas had told HEHSC that based on DODE’s evaluation, the WRCS board retained legal counsel and has been in communication with DOJ in preparation for the hearing.
Meanwhile, said Maestas, stakeholders, parents and community members continued to reach out to DODE and NNBOE stressing the issues of concern as it affects operations, adequate staff performance, student learning and positive partnerships.
In the meantime, the WRCS board took action to reinstate the school’s business manager, Marleita Begay, who had been placed on administrative leave by the previous principal, Rachel Maho.
Then the WRCS board turned around and placed Maho on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations pertaining to missing funds, which Maho vehemently denies. A short time later, Maho was terminated.
Since then, interim principal Jeanne Lewis became permanent and Begay’s role was expanded from part-time to full-time, explained Maestas.
She said stakeholders are becoming increasingly frustrated with the prolonged process to address the ongoing concerns.
“The WRCS board is causing discord between stakeholders, parents, staff and educational services to our students,” said Maestas.
Jessica Allen, who also testified to HEHSC, pleaded for the committee to investigate the school.
“There have been multiple issues with nepotism, favoritism, bullying, and what I see as mental and emotional abuse on staff and other individuals,” she said. “Time and time again they’ve proven they don’t care for authority. They don’t care what DODE says; they don’t care what you say. They’ve proven this.”
Allen said she chooses to speak up not just for her children but all of the students, parents and staff who are afraid to speak up.
“It is really heartbreaking and I can honestly say at this point that I have almost lost faith in the Navajo Nation school system,” she said. “I understand things take time, but we’re going on three years now and this school board still does not care about the kids. You can see flat-out there is collusion and something very sinister going on between the school board and business manager.”
Fear of retaliation
A WRCS parent who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said she also did not receive an enrollment packet for her child.
“I’m very upset, because I’m a community member and I’ve been going through these issues since 2013,” she said.
In 2015, DODE came in and took the authority away from the school board, she said, but eventually the board came back in and the school began to decline again in terms of academics, management, and accountability.
She said ironically the present principal Jeannie Lewis had formerly been removed by the school board because “they didn’t like her.”
“It was so surprising to hear they hired her after they got rid of Maho,” she said. “I’m thinking why are they hiring her back?”
The anonymous parent suggested principal Lewis and business manager Begay are friends.
“Marleita Begay is the one that’s running the school,” she said. “She’s playing this game of intimidation. She’s using leverage with Jeanne Lewis as to which students can come back.”
She said they removed the registrar who had the knowledge and capability to do the job and replaced her with someone who doesn’t.
Similar things have happened to many teachers and staff who were supportive of parents, she said.
“They don’t like staff to get too close to the parents or the stakeholders,” she said.
She feels the school board members are unethical and have allowed Marleita Begay to “run the show.”
Begay and the board did not respond to a request for comment from the Navajo Times.
The anonymous parent has chosen not to enroll her children at this time because of what is going on.
‘The buddy system’
WRCS parent Mina Francis was the cafeteria manager in 2017 at the school when Marleita Begay was first hired.
She said one of the first things Begay did when she came in was demote all of the supervisors across the board “in order to save money,” and administered a cut in pay even though their duties and responsibilities didn’t change.
“She demoted us all to the same level as our subordinates,” she said.
Francis described the situation as demoralizing and suggested Begay’s hiring and firing decisions are based on “the buddy system.”
Francis said Begay went to great lengths to defame her character and ultimately allowed her contract to expire after she had worked at the school for five years.
She said despite the efforts of parents and employees to bring awareness to the situation, nothing has been done to address Begay and the multiple hats she wears at the school, including human resources.
Most notably, Begay also serves as Apache County treasurer.
“I don’t know how she juggles all of these positions,” said Francis.
Francis said if she could ask DODE one thing it would be why is it taking so long to take action?
“We’re just at the end of our ropes,” she said. “We don’t know what to do or where to turn. We’re so tired. We’re exhausted.”
Francis said before Begay came, everything was done to encourage, motivate and reward students.
At one time they had certified teachers, she said, but the school let them go because they spoke out against the board.
The school has also had nine principals in six years.
“There’s been no consistency. They let the teachers come and go,” said Francis. “Now nothing is for the students and the staff are walking on eggshells.”