FARMINGTON — The proposed split of the Central Consolidated School District would pull one-third of the district's schools and a student population of about 2,700 from a district that was established in 1918.

The San Juan County Clerk's Office on Thursday certified a petition containing 3,000 signatures of registered voters in the proposed new district.

Certification came two days after the Kirtland community group Children First delivered the petition. County personnel verified every signature on the petition against voter registration records and confirmed that more than 60 percent of voters are in favor of a split.

The petition seeks approval from the state Public Education Department to split the district along the Navajo Nation border. The new district would encompass Kirtland Central High School, Kirtland Middle School, three elementary schools, the early childhood center, administration offices, a pool and a performing arts center.

Eleven schools, facilities, another pool and teacher housing in the Shiprock, Newcomb, Naschitti and Ojo Amarillo areas would remain in the original district.

The 3,000-square-mile district also includes two power plants and two accompanying mines, one on the reservation and one off. If the split occurs, each district will benefit from the tax base of a power plant and a mine.


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Each of the districts also has all necessary facilities in place, including administrative offices, a bus barn and schools.

 

The proposal

The split is motivated by a desire to provide a quality education, Children First member Angela Slone said.

"This desire for our own district is not about race or religion, as some would have you believe," Slone told the board last month. "It's about bringing sanity, proper role modeling and true accountability to the schools and to our children."

The split would cut CCSD into two, creating a small district north of the San Juan River, west of Farmington Municipal Schools and east of the reservation line. The original district would comprise the vastly rural areas of the Navajo Nation west to the Arizona state line and south to the McKinley County border.

Although Children First garnered support from 85 percent of registered voters in the proposed new district, residents on the other side of the reservation line are not speaking in favor of the split.

In fact, administrators and board members are vocally opposing it, claiming the community group acted rashly and was motivated by attitudes of racism.

"I don't think these people have really thought things through," Board President Matthew Tso said of Children First, a group he claims does not prioritize the best interests of the district's 6,600 students, 90 percent of whom are Navajo.

"I think this is hurting our children," he said. "They (Children First) want to split the district because they no longer call the shots. It's not about the children. It's about money, power and employees."

The split also would cost the new district more than $20 million in bond debts owed to the reservation portion, district spokesman James Preminger said.

"If there was a split, property taxes would rise," he said. "A Kirtland school district would owe CCSD approximately $20 million to pay the bond debt off of Kirtland Middle School, the Brooks-Isham Performing Arts Center and the Kirtland swimming pool."

"They would also be faced with new debt of approximately $20 million in bonds to replace Grace B. Wilson Elementary and Ruth N. Bond Elementary," Tso said.

Those figures are not correct, said Byron Manning, a spokesman for Children First. Manning, director of finance and operations for CCSD, remains on paid administrative leave pending the state's approval of a settlement.

"Each district would be responsible for bonding to its assessed valuation," he said. "If the district split, and assessed valuation was 60-40, that's what each district would pay for existing bonds."

CCSD is bonded to capacity, Manning said. The district's facilities master plan does not call for replacement of two of the Kirtland elementary schools for eight to 10 years.

"Ruth N. Bond and Grace B. Wilson, that's something the new district would have to decide on," he said.

 

Tensions

CCSD, which joined the state's school system in 1931, in recent years has become rife with political, religious and racial tensions. Those tensions came to a head when the governing board voted unanimously in April 2010 to close Nataani Nez Elementary School in Shiprock, citing dropping student enrollment and a $4.2 million budget shortfall.

The closure came after eight months of planning and community meetings and was expected to save more than $800,000 per year. Students and teachers were consolidated into the three remaining Shiprock elementary schools, minimizing job loss.

Much of the Navajo population, however, viewed the closure as an act of discrimination, and some of those feelings spilled into a decision a year later to close the Kirtland Business Office and consolidate staff into the Shiprock Administration Office.

The governing board in a 4-1 vote May 17 approved closure of the Kirtland administrative hub, and directed employees to vacate the building by the end of June.

During the year between the votes to close Nataani Nez and the Kirtland Business Office, two of the five seats on the governing board changed hands.

Tso, who took office in March, said the Kirtland Business Office closure should be viewed as a trade-off for Nataani Nez. The vote came despite Superintendent Gregg Epperson's recommendations against it.

The action prompted formation of Children First, a group who called the closure "retaliatory," and whose first action was to seek a restraining order to keep the business office open long enough for a feasibility study.

No such study was conducted, and a district court judge denied the restraining order. The cost to move staff to Shiprock was about $250,000.

Children First then began gathering signatures on a petition to split the district, a move Tso claims is motivated by "anti-Navajo attitudes."

He claims the petition is coming from a predominantly Anglo and Mormon population in Kirtland. He opposes a new district because he wants to shield Navajo students in those schools from "power-hungry racists."

"Having seen the actual intents and purposes of Children First, I wouldn't want our Navajo people to be subjected to the racist, anti-Navajo attitudes," he said. "It's attitudes like this that have long held back our people. If people understood who this group is and their attitudes, they would think differently."

According to 2010 Census numbers, however, 52 percent of Kirtland residents are American Indian, and 36 percent are Anglo. Mormons make up only about 10 percent of the total population.

Tso also threatened the new district with the loss of impact aid money from the Navajo tribe. That money totals millions of dollars per year to Navajo students attending school in the district and living on reservation land.

Claiming the Nation opposes the split, Tso said the tribe has the power to deny impact aid dollars to the new district.

"This group is greatly mistaken if they think they can remove the Navajo Nation from having any input regarding the education of their children," he said. "The Navajo Nation will not let their children suffer at the mercy of an openly racist, segregationist, anti-Navajo group such as Children First."

Even if the Nation withholds impact aid money, that would not significantly hurt the Kirtland district, Manning said. Because the new district does not include any reservation land, few students living on the reservation would attend Kirtland schools.

 

Restructuring

A massive restructuring of CCSD began May 17 with the vote to close the Kirtland Business Office. That meeting set off a chain of events that led to the proposed split.

Thirty-two community members spoke against the closure during the May meeting. Some comments were racially charged, including one individual who criticized board member Hoskie Benally's prayer because it was in Navajo, and "English is the national language."

That meeting is viewed as a turning point in the district. By the end of May, the board put Epperson on administrative leave and appointed Don Levinski to serve as acting superintendent. Levinski immediately began restructuring the district, which he believes was heavy with administrators and inflated salaries.

He dissolved a level of administration when he cut the two assistant superintendent positions. He also cut the number of department directors in half, demoting five of those individuals to coordinators and other directors to lesser positions. One of those people faces a $50,000 salary cut when the next fiscal year starts July 1.

The decisions were applauded by district employees and community members who believed the cuts would put more money into the classrooms. But they also provided added impetus for Children First to seek a new Kirtland school district.

Volunteers spent nearly six months going door-to-door in 12 neighborhoods, seeking signatures. Some residents were contacted as many as five times. The group needed 2,900 signatures to meet the state requirement of approval from 60 percent of registered voters.

In some neighborhoods, support was as high as 94 percent. The group plans to inform the CCSD board of the verified petition by the Dec. 15 board meeting and forward it to the state.

The state has 90 days from receipt of the petition to schedule a hearing to determine whether a split would be in the best interest of both districts.

But the petition comes as Levinski faces possible suspension and the district faces another major overhaul.

The interim superintendent acted outside his authority, the state education secretary-designate wrote in a Nov. 8 letter, because he made personnel decisions before a written contract was in place. He also promoted and demoted employees under "questionable circumstances."

Levinski and his administration have claimed all actions were within his authority, but the district has not released a formal response to the letter.

Levinski has until Thursday to respond or face possible suspension of his authority.

Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera also has delayed approval of two pending settlements, those for Epperson and Manning, possibly until Levinski has a chance to correct his actions.

Meanwhile, the district will continue to function as one.

"The district's position is that CCSD stay intact," Preminger said. "By staying together, we will have more resources districtwide going into direct classroom instruction. There will be less administrative costs because you'll have one administration versus two administrations for the same number of students."