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9 placed on leave at Rough Rock school

BOULDER, Colo.

Nine faculty and staff members, including the superintendent, are on administrative leave at Rough Rock Community School following allegations of nepotism.

Tommy Lewis, Navajo Nation superintendent of schools, and Darrick Franklin, program manager for the Division of Diné Education’s Office of Accountability and Compliance, confirmed last week that the staffers, all of whom are related to superintendent Roseyphina Sells, have been on leave since Oct. 22.

They are on leave pending an investigation into whether they were hired because of their relationships with Sells.

“There were some fairly strong accusations within the school and within the community that the school was under family control and clanship control,” Lewis explained. “There were lots of brothers and sisters (working at the school), and a mother, I believe.”

Lewis said the decision to place the staffers on leave and hire an independent investigator was made by the school’s board of education after seeking advice from DODE.

“Our position is the school board is the ones that got elected,” explained Lewis. “We can only advise them if they want that.”

Lewis and Franklin both said they felt the board had honored protocol and was doing the right thing.

“Hopefully the investigation will happen quickly and without bias,” Lewis said. “Our word from the school is that things are quiet and people are going about their work.

“Although the superintendent is on leave and the high school principal has resigned, some critical positions like the business manager and the human resources director are still there keeping things running, and they have an acting superintendent,” he said.

“As far as I know, the students have not missed any school,” Lewis added.

Rough Rock Community School, the first contract school on the reservation and a bold experiment in educational sovereignty when it was founded in 1966, lost its accreditation in 2017 after it failed to meet standards enforced by AdvancED, the Navajo Nation’s accrediting agency.

But since then, Franklin said, the school’s staff and administration have worked hard to restore the school’s once-stellar reputation.

“I really hope this investigation doesn’t obscure all the good things going on at the school,” Franklin said. “My office has been working really hard with that school.”

Franklin said that in addition to losing its accreditation, which has since been provisionally restored, the school was under a corrective action plan because of audit findings.

“People said they’d never get out from under those sanctions, and they did,” Franklin said. “People said they’d never get their accreditation back, and they’re well on their way to doing that too, in a very short amount of time.”

While the allegations are serious and need to be investigated, “I really hope they don’t set the school back from all the progress it’s made,” Franklin said.

But people who brought the allegations, including former Rough Rock staff member Eugene Badonie, accused DODE and the Bureau of Indian Affairs of “covering up” wrongdoing at the school.

According to Badonie, in addition to nepotism, Sells, a member of a well-known rodeo family, spent $80,000 In school funds on a truck and trailer for the school’s rodeo team and took out a $20,000 sponsorship for the Navajo Nation Fair — a huge chunk of money for a K-12 school of fewer than 300 students.

He showed the Times paperwork documenting the purchases.

Contact information could not be found for Sells, and calls to several numbers at the school over several days turned up a monotone buzz followed by a busy signal.

School board President Rena Mann did not return a phone call.

A BIE spokeswoman said the school is an independent contract school under local control and not under the jurisdiction of the BIE, although the BIE does fund the school.



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.