Navajo President Ben Shelly has directed the Department of Diné Education to prepare for cuts and to begin taking action by the end of the month.
The funding reduction, which cuts available dollars nearly in half, takes effect Nov. 1.
That's a loss of nearly $14 million per year from a program already struggling with compliance issues, past funding suspensions and difficulty finding and keeping qualified staff. A loss of federal dollars also could mean cuts to services on the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile reservation.
"We have assigned a task team to make recommendations and take necessary actions to ensure direct services to our children and families are not disrupted," Shelly said in a prepared statement. "I have also directed Navajo Head Start to develop a detailed budget plan to address the proposed funding cuts. My administration will begin negotiating for a higher rate of cost per child to continue our direct services."
The Administration for Children and Families, a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, notified Shelly of its intent to reduce base funding. The administration has the authority to recapture, withhold or reduce the base grant.
Original funding provided dollars for the Nation to serve more than 4,000 students.
For the past several years, however, the program's enrollment has fluctuated between 2,000 and 2,500 children, according to information from the Office of the President and Vice President.
The letter from the Administration for Children and Families states that it is reducing the base Head Start grant by 48 percent because enrollment on the Nation is just fewer than 2,100 children.
The grant also provided for 60 children in the Early Head Start program, which caters to children younger than 3 and pregnant women. That program's funding will be cut by 38 percent, the letter states.
Navajo Head Start, beginning Nov. 1, will operate with a base grant of about $15 million. Early Head Start will get about $385,000.
Navajo Head Start, the largest American Indian Head Start program in the country, has served Navajo youths since 1965. However, it has not seen full enrollment since 2001.
Program officials blame under-enrollment on a continued lack of adequate facilities and qualified teachers. Each Head Start facility is required to have a credentialed teacher, a teacher's aide, a cook and a bus driver.
"We have been meeting with Head Start management for the past month and working to address long-standing legal and audit issues," Department of Diné Education Superintendent Andrew Tah said in a prepared statement. "We face unique challenges because of our remote classroom locations, travel expenses and the ability to effectively conduct home visits."
The Administration for Children and Families suspended the Navajo program's funding in 2006 after discovering 51 employees with criminal histories, including murder, spousal abuse and child abuse, were hired without first having to submit to criminal background checks.
The 2006 suspension cost the Nation more than $26 million per year on which it relied to serve children ages 3 to 5. By the following year, the Nation was well on its way to address the deficiencies and reopen the program, but it still is subject to tri-yearly reviews, a spokesman for President Shelly previously said.
The most recent of those reviews was in June, Shelly spokeswoman Charmaine Jackson said. The review coincided with the Department of Diné Education's decision to place Head Start Director Spencer Willie on administrative leave for five days.