‘Turmoil and chaos’ at Many Farms school
After hearing from dozens of concerned parents and employees from Many Farms Community School about alleged mismanagement and lack of COVID-19 safety protocols at the school, Many Farms Chapter passed a resolution on July 11 requesting intervention from the Department of Diné Education.
“Nepotism, favoritism, unfair hiring and retaliation is happening in Many Farms Community School,” parent Crystal Tso notified the Navajo Times.
“Parents have voiced their concerns of the administration’s misuse of power and funds yet they continue their role in the school,” she said.
Delegate Kee Allen Begay, who delivered the resolution (No. 60-07-22) to DODE last week, told Navajo Times he and Many Farms Chapter officials heard directly from staff and parents in multiple meetings about the ongoing issues and concerns at the school.
“There are layers of policy and oversight authority to protect our Navajo children, that we, the elected officials and administrators, need to follow and abide by to ensure parents, relatives, and the public that our children are in a protected environment,” he said.
With the first day of the new school year starting on Aug. 3, the community is demanding immediate action be taken.
“We, the parents, guardians and stakeholders of MFCS are aware of all the violations caused at MFCS for the last 6 months that continue to occur,” states a supporting document/petition attached to the resolution. “Our children are impacted the most. Their safety, liability, and their academic growth are at stake.”
Six months ago was when Interim Principal Janet Slowman-Chee took the reins at the school, which has been in a downward spiral since, say community members, especially after Interim Business Manager Marleita Begay stepped into the position three months later.
“After she came in in March, things started to go crazy,” a female employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Navajo Times. “She is actually the one making all the decisions for the whole school.”
Administrative changes implemented by Slowman-Chee and Begay include changing the organizational chart, pay cuts, demotions, eliminating certain positions, moving money around through budget transfers, and eliminating the schools internal Executive Leadership Team, the employee said.
“I don’t know how she (Begay) does it with the school board, but they listen to whatever she says,” she said. “The interim principal just sits back and allows her to run the whole school.”
There is “no transparency and no communication” with staff and if they try to question Begay about her decisions, “she gets very upset,” she said.
“Her line is, ‘You’re hurting my feelings. I’m going to write you up,’” she said. “If we say something to her, she will turn around and get rid of us. It’s scary.”
The anonymous employee said the board and Begay work closely together, even though that should be Slowman-Chee’s role, and do not communicate their decisions to staff.
“One of the things that we found very strange is the way Marleita approaches staff,” she said.
“She’s rude, very, very rude,” she said. “She’s very mean and she bullies the staff – she makes it seem like they’re incompetent of doing their job.”
Multiple attempts by the Navajo Times to reach Slowman-Chee and Begay for comment by email and phone were not responded to by press time Wednesday.
Alleged ‘cover up’
The supporting document/petition attached to the chapter resolution also suggests that Slowman-Chee and Begay “covered up” the fact that school bus drivers were forced to drive buses without official contracts in place.
“Should an accident have occurred in transporting our children, it would not be covered under the insurance liability held by the school,” the document states. “Our children’s lives are precious, and they are not replaceable.”
Furthermore, under the leadership of Slowman-Chee, at least one bus driver was forced to work even though she had been exposed to COVID-19 and was advised to quarantine by the Indian Health Service.
“These policies were overlooked and not enforced,” the document states. “The MFCS governing board continues to allow Dr. Slowman-Chee to run the school with this kind of liability to MFCS children and staff.”
Finally, the document says that Slowman-Chee is not certified to oversee and work in any school in Arizona as a principal and that Maleita Begay, who is also the Apache County treasurer, was not properly vetted to work as an employee of MFCS.
“These are further violations of the MFCS governing board members to have interims work at MFCS without proper credentials and adjudications in place,” the document states.
The MFCS board is made up of Juanita Contreras, president; Rudy Yellowhair, vice president; Jay R. Nez, secretary; and Sharon Gorman and Linda Yazzie.
“Many of the staff have worked with MFCS for many years and are aware of the turmoil and chaos that occurs when the current MFCS board members fail to uphold policies they approve as elected officials,” Many Farms community members stated in the document.
Bus driver Jessie Boyd, who was forced to work when she had two children sick at home with COVID-19, told the Navajo Times she was instructed by acting principal Cecil Begay (during Slowman-Chee’s absence) to tell students and parents that two other bus drivers who had COVID-19 were out due to “family situations.”
In other words, it appeared the school leadership was deliberately trying to keep critical COVID-19 exposure information from parents, she indicated.
The remaining buses also became overcrowded with children when two of the bus drivers were out sick, said Boyd, further compromising COVID-19 safety.
When Boyd filed a grievance against Slowman-Chee for discrimination, segregation, and retaliation relating to a number of issues and incidents, there was no response, she said.
“There is no communication at all from that lady,” said Boyd.
Boyd said there is also no plan for what the bus routes are for the upcoming school year because the drivers have not been informed of enrollment data that would contain route addresses.
Busses have to be cleaned and sanitized, she said, but there’s no plan in place for that either.
Former MFCS Administrative Assistant Melissa Todacheenie told the Navajo Times she believes her contract wasn’t renewed this spring because of retaliation.
After she sent an email complaint to Slowman-Chee about her lack of communication with staff who were coming to her with questions, “everything changed.”
“Since I sent that email, it just got worse,” said Todacheenie.
Then she was informed by email two days before her contract ended that it would not be renewed.
“I had to go find a home for my kids and rearrange everything,” she said.
Todacheenie also said when Marleita Begay arrived at MFCS, the school was turned upside down.
“It was like a 160 degree turn out of nowhere,” she said.
“They said they had to change the organizational chart,” said Todacheenie. “A lot of staff, their position was changed or abolished, or they were put into different departments.”
Todacheenie, who had been in the admin position for five years, said she just wants an explanation for why she was terminated and has requested that.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t told why I was abolished,” she said. “I still haven’t gotten anything back. No response.”
‘Shut us down’
Meanwhile, Crystal Tso, whose daughter is entering the school as a new student, is perplexed as to how it’s all going to work with all of the chaos and uncertainty.
“School is starting in two weeks and we’re wondering what’s going on,” said Tso. “There’s absolutely no communication.”
“As a parent, I’m just worried, is the school ready?” she said. “What are their Covid protocols? From what I’m hearing they don’t have one set in place yet.”
Tso said she and her mother attended a recent school board meeting to voice their concerns and request information, but they were denied both.
“We had a chance to speak, but they completely cut us off,” said Tso. “They would not let us talk about what we were concerned about, what we wanted answers to. They just shut us down.”
Tso said she believes the school board members are fully aware of what is going on at the school and are enabling Slowman-Chee and Marleita Begay.
“They just came out and said, ‘We know their wrongdoings and were proud of how far they’ve come,’” said Tso.
“We are just in shock,” said Tso. “We were like, you just admitted what they’re doing and yet you’re praising them.”
As they left the meeting, Tso said certain board members laughed and mocked her and her mother as they walked out the door.
Delegate Begay said he will continue to advocate for students and staff and expects the school board and principal to step up to “ensure a positive environment” is maintained at the school.
A request for comment from DODE superintendent Harold Begay was not responded to.
However, Cody Begaye, DODE’s public information officer, told the Navajo Times on Tuesday that DODE officials hope to find some kind of resolution to the situation before school starts on Aug. 3.
“There is continued fact finding and anticipation for a positive resolution before the children get back into the classroom in a few weeks,” said Delegate Begay.