FARMINGTON Thirty years ago, tensions between the Kirtland and Shiprock areas of Central Consolidated Schools District prompted residents to seek relief from the state.

The state board of education in August 1982 heard arguments from Kirtland residents wanting to split the district along the Navajo Nation border and from district administrators and local board members who opposed the change.

The 10-member state board ultimately denied the split, though members expressed concern that negative attitudes dividing the district wouldn't change.

Things haven't changed, said Randy Manning, who was elected to the board in 1993. He supports a petition to split the district that likely will be in the Public Education Department offices by the end of this week.

"It's even worse now than it was then," Manning said. "There's new hostility now. It's just going to keep escalating."

Kirtland community group Children First, formed in May to protest the Central Consolidated School Board's decisions, last week submitted to the county clerk's office a petition signed by more than 3,000 registered voters in the proposed new district.

The signatures represented more than 60 percent of voters, the amount required for the state to take the next step. The clerk's office verified the signatures and certified the petition Dec. 1.

Children First plans to inform the board of its progress this week, then forward the petition to the state Public Education Department.


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The state PED, upon receipt of the petition, has 90 days to schedule a public hearing. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether creating a split is in the best interest of public education in both districts.

If the state approves a split, it will be the first since 1994 when the Rio Rancho School District was formed after a split from Albuquerque and Jemez Valley Public Schools, a PED spokesman said.

Regardless of the outcome in the CCSD case, the arguments both for and against the split are not new.

1982 attempt

A group called Kirtland Concerned Citizens in August 1982 went before the state board of education to petition for a split. The board, after a hearing that allowed testimony from petitioners and representatives from the district's administration and school board, denied the request in a 7-3 vote, according to minutes from that meeting.

Nine witnesses from Kirtland Concerned Citizens were sworn in, and seven witnesses represented the district, which opposed the split.

An attorney for the Kirtland group, Fletcher Catron, testified that "tensions between the two groups could be lessened by a division of the present district."

The district's attorney, Byron Caton, argued that "a division of the district would constitute a step backward in the state's educational philosophy." Caton also claimed a split would be discriminatory and would be challenged in court, according to the minutes.

The state education board ultimately decided that creating a new district was not in the best interest of all children in the area. Board members also feared that approving a split would make the board vulnerable to lawsuits because most of the district's Anglo students would belong to the new district.

The three board members in favor of a split cited little evidence that education or attitudes would improve, and that until they did, the children would suffer.

2011 climate

The district for decades has been a battleground for disagreements on race, religion, politics and philosophies on education. Tension reached a head in May when the board voted 4-1 to close the Kirtland Business Office and move all personnel to Shiprock.

Although Kirtland employees complained about the added miles to commute to work, the root of the opposition came from a belief that the board closed the office for political reasons. By moving the district's administration to Shiprock, the human resources department would be under lease with the Navajo Nation, thus requiring the district to adhere to Navajo Preference in Employment Act.

The act instructs employers to select "any Navajo applicant or candidate who demonstrates the necessary qualifications for an employment position" in the case of hiring, promoting, transfer or upgrade, regardless of a non-Navajo applicant's qualifications.

The Kirtland area formed Children First to contest moving human resources to Shiprock, voicing concerns that their children would be taught by "minimally qualified" professionals and claiming the move was discriminating against them as non-Navajo residents.

When an attempt to get a temporary restraining order that would have delayed the closure failed in June, the group began seeking signatures on a petition to split the district.

Children First also represents a more progressive education philosophy, while district leaders and the majority of the board continually push for more traditional education in the classroom, such as language immersion programs.

Randy Manning, on the other hand, has pushed for studies of the immersion program and success rates of students who complete it. He is critical of the program and believes prioritizing Navajo language and culture in the classroom can detract from studies that help students meet state and federal education benchmarks and prepare them for college or the work force.

"What the district wants to do with education is totally different from what we want to do," Manning said. "The district is not concerned about what students are going to do in real life."

Board members supporting more native education in school view Manning's statements as discriminatory and the proposed split as a civil rights issue because it would divide the district along the reservation line.

"These are issues of civil rights and segregation," said Board President Matthew Tso, who opposes the split. "Even if the state approved a split, it would invite an investigation into civil rights."

Actions by the board and Acting Superintendent Don Levinski since May, however, already have opened the district to investigations of civil rights and violations of state and district policy.

Levinski, acting with support from the majority of the board, in June started demoting Anglo employees and promoting Navajo employees. Some of those actions are the subject of a warning letter from the Public Education Department, which gave Levinski 30 days to remedy violations of state law and district code, including promoting and demoting employees under questionable circumstances.

Levinski submitted a response to that letter Thursday, but the PED has not yet released it to the public.

Levinski's decision in August to prohibit the community from speaking about a specific topic during an open meeting also led the federal education department to open an investigation into a possible violation of civil rights.

That investigation is ongoing.

Irreconcilable

differences

Levinski's woes with the state have added extra fuel to Children First's efforts to split the district. Proponents believe enough has changed or gotten worse since 1982 to warrant a split.

"The contention between the two communities has only gotten worse," said Byron Manning, a spokesman for Children First.

Manning believes concerns of discrimination voiced by the state board in 1982 no longer have as much relevance. Navajo students make up as much as 85 percent of the student population in the six Kirtland schools.

The majority of the Kirtland community also is Navajo, according to the 2010 Census. Only one-third of Kirtland residents are Anglo, the data shows.

"The Kirtland community is a whole lot more Navajo today than it was then (1982)," Manning said. "We had strong support on the petitions from Native Americans in Kirtland to be separate."

Manning believes, should a split be approved, parents wanting a progressive, modern education for their children will transport them to the Kirtland area.

Despite the petition and pending state action, however, the board and administration continue to oppose a split.

"It's just irreconcilable differences," Tso said. "There's not a compelling enough reason to split. A split will be costly and it will be caught up in litigation for years."