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DODE investigating ‘dozens’ of complaints against Shonto Prep

WINDOW ROCK

The Division of Diné Education is investigating what Delegate Carl Slater described as “dozens” of complaints against Shonto Preparatory School, ranging from alcohol and drug use on campus to misuse of coronavirus relief funds to retaliation against whistleblowers.

School officials say they weren’t aware of most of the complaints until DODE confronted them, and they were not taken up the chain of command.

“I hear all of this — I have yet to see documentation of anything,” protested Shonto Preparatory School Board of Education President Tom Franklin.

The complaints, which surfaced during last Wednesday’s meeting of the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, were not released to the press but, from discussion at the meeting, they roughly fell into the categories of substance abuse in employee housing, including an alleged assault by an intoxicated individual; financial impropriety and intimidation of those who spoke out.

The committee held its meeting in person and by phone in Shonto, Arizona, in order to encourage local participation.

Shonto Community Governance President Roland Smallcanyon and Naatsiis’áán Chapter Vice President Darlene Pino both said the concerns had been brought to their respective chapters, with residents telling them the school board was not allowing them to air grievances at their meetings.

“The school board and the administration didn’t handle this right,” Smallcanyon said.

Pino said she had attended some school board meetings and felt like the parents were being shut down.

Franklin said parents and community members are allowed to speak during the call to the public, but they have to arrange it in advance with the acting superintendent.

He added the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds were all budgeted for appropriate items and went through proper channels.

“I don’t see no mishandling of CARES Act,” he said.

Bonnie Johnson, director of educational technology, said about $612,000 was spent on laptops, hotspots, software and IT support to allow students in the remote community to learn remotely after the grant school transitioned to online learning last spring.

Acting business manager Esther Badonie added that now that the school is preparing for possible hybrid learning, the remainder of the funds will be diverted to personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

As for the charge that some positions were terminated to get rid of whistleblowers, Franklin said the only positions that were canceled were ones that the school has not been able to fill for the entire school year. Some positions were downgraded from professional to technical to allow them to be filled by less qualified people rather than remain unfilled, he said.

Both Franklin and school board member Martha Tate said they had less than a day’s notice to prepare a report for the HEHS meeting, and haven’t even formally met with DODE on the allegations yet.

Tate said she would prefer the school be reverted to the control of the Bureau of Indian Education rather than the “micromanaging and harassment” she felt she was getting at the hands of DODE and the committee.

“You’re taking over the decision-making of the school,” she charged.

Slater, vice chairman of the committee, said he didn’t see any micromanaging or harassment.

“This committee has oversight over grant schools,” he noted. “We have stacks of allegations ranging from personnel to consumption of drugs and alcohol to safety to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. It is the right of individuals to seek redress … There is no micromanaging here.”

He also discouraged the board from giving up on the problems.

“I sincerely ask the board — if you want a positive outcome, don’t say, ‘We want to wipe our hands of this and turn things over to the BIE,’” he said.

“You’re the elected officials, it’s your responsibility to work this out.”

LaVida Maestas of DODE’s Office of Diné Accountability and Compliance said DODE had been trying to work with the school since December, but the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the works and meetings with the board and administration kept getting postponed.

Darrick Franklin (no relation to Tom), education program manager for ODAC, explained the process, noting DODE has to receive complaints from 10 or more individuals before it can get involved. It then has to verify all those complaints — the process it’s in now — before it can meet with the school board and discuss possible corrective actions.

The corrective action plan is then presented to the Navajo Nation Board of Education and the Navajo Nation superintendent of schools for their approval.

Committee Chairman Daniel Tso asked Franklin where the school is in its reauthorization process.

Franklin replied the school is up for reauthorization June 30, at which time it will have to present its 2021 financial audit, and in the case of Shonto, also the 2020 audit, which it has not yet turned in.

Maestas said she is trying to organize a meeting with the school board to go over the complaints and the process, but has been unsuccessful so far.

Navajo Nation acting Superintendent of Schools Patricia Gonnie pleaded for patience on everybody’s part while DODE conducts its investigation.

“We need to be allowed the opportunity to exhaust that process, that fact-finding initiative that is underway,” she said. “We will continue to follow through and make sure we have a comprehensive report.”


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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