The Kirtland community group Children First, formed to seek creation of a separate school district, failed to submit the proper paperwork to the state, a Jan. 19 letter from the Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera states.
That means the 90-day period during which the state Public Education Department must schedule a public hearing has yet to begin.
Members of Children First on Dec. 27 delivered to the PED a document from the San Juan County Clerk's Office certifying that the group had obtained signatures from more than 60 percent of registered voters in the proposed new district. The clerk's office certified the petition Dec. 1.
Signed by County Clerk Debbie Holmes, that document states the office examined the petitions, compared the signatures with voter registration records and certified that 3,038 individuals signed in favor of creating a new school district in the lower valley, which includes Kirtland, Fruitland and Waterflow.
Under state statute, the PED must schedule a public hearing within 90 days of receiving the petition.
The deadline to hold that hearing would have been March 26.
The group failed to present a complete copy of the petition, however, Skandera wrote in a Jan. 19 letter to Byron Manning and copied to all five board members. Instead of presenting all 3,000 signatures, the group simply presented the county clerk's certification letter.
"If you want the PED to consider your petition, you must provide my office with a complete copy of the petition," Skandera wrote. "The 90 days will not begin to accrue until I receive that document."
Manning, former executive director of finance and operations for the district, managed the petition drive.
Children First plans to submit the roughly 400 pages of signatures to the state immediately, thus beginning the 90-day countdown, Manning said Wednesday.
"It's a setback," he said. "It's been delayed by a month."
The group also will present a copy of the petition to the Central Consolidated School Board, per Skandera's instructions. Additionally, Children First will select a spokesperson who will act as a single point of contact between the group and the state.
Children First plans to meet to select that person and to move forward with the state's requests, Manning said.
Skandera, in her three-page letter, also requested additional data to help her in her deliberations. She asked for 18 specific reports, such as boundaries of the new district, impact of a new district on the existing district and projected costs associated with creation of a new district.
Skandera asked for this in-depth prospectus within 35 days, though such a report is not legally required for the state to schedule a public hearing. Everything provided to the state also should be presented to the school district, she wrote.
"I guess we start putting stuff together," Manning said in response to the request. "We'll begin working on it."
Once she receives all the data, Skandera will ask CCSD for its position and any information or reports it has generated.
The district, including the majority of the board, opposes a split.
"The district does not believe a split will occur," district spokesman James Preminger said Wednesday. "All of the hoops in the (PED) letter show Children First has not made its case."
Skandera's letter has opened the door for criticism of Children First and its methods of gathering signatures on the petition.
Representatives of Children First used questionable methods to obtain signatures, including visiting homes as many as eight times and publicly distributing a list of people who refused to sign, said Chad Wood, a Kirtland resident and newly appointed board member.
Wood did not sign the petition.
"People signed the petition so Children First would give up," Wood said. "Or they signed it so the state will come in, do a study and determine what to do."
Wood, appointed to the board in October after Bernice Benally died, opposes a split on financial and ethical grounds.
"It's a small core group of people who are definitely driving the split," he said. "They've been able to ride a wave of emotion, a wave of negative sentiment."
Wood criticized the group for using the Mormon religion as a springboard for the movement. Wood, a Mormon, said the group used social and religious pressure to get community members to sign.
"I find it offensive that people are wrapping themselves in their religion to push an agenda," he said. "The Mormon community has let itself be co-opted by this."
Angela Slone, one of the first to join Children First, said petitioners visited homes only once if a resident declined to sign.
"Some would sign," she said. "Others would say they wanted to think about it. If they said no, we did not go back. If they said no, it was pretty firm."
More than half of the signatures came during the first two weeks, Manning said. Other residents, he said, registered to vote simply so they could sign the petition.
"Most of the people were waiting for us," he said. "They were flagging us down to sign the petition."
Slone, who is not a Mormon, said the petition never was based on religion. She signed because her two children go to Kirtland schools and she was worried about the future of their education.
"How did we get people to sign?" she said. "We know people because we've been here our whole lives. We grew up here. We all grew up together. We told people what we were doing and they signed."
Wood views Skandera's letter as a way for the state to ensure Children First has done its homework.
"I think the state already knows the answer to a lot of those questions," he said. "They're just making sure Children First has done its due diligence."
Wood also warns of potential civil rights lawsuits if the district splits along the reservation line. The state board of education in 1982 voted against a proposed split in part because board members feared approving a split would make the board vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits.
"If they split, the PED likely would have a lawsuit of some sort on their hands," Wood said. "I'm sure someone will file a civil rights complaint."
Board President Matthew Tso also is using Skandera's letter to attack Children First.
"Skandera's letter clearly shows that ... the group failed to follow the law and do their homework behind a proposed split," he said. "The vagueness and ambiguity in their petition shows that they were very deceptive and misleading in their gathering of signatures."
But Children First is fueled by attitudes like Tso's and a desire to provide a model of education not available under the district's administration and school board, Slone said.
It organized in May to protest the closure of the Kirtland Business Office, which the board approved without first conducting a feasibility study. When the group failed in district court to stop the closure, it began gathering support to split the district.
"The desire for our own district is not about race or religion as some would have you believe," Slone told the school board in November when she announced that the necessary signatures were gathered. "It's about bringing sanity, proper role-modeling and true accountability to our children."
Also included in Skandera's letter to Manning is a 2010 opinion from the attorney general that addresses some of the issues of creating a new school district.
The opinion answers four questions, including whether the education secretary has the authority to:
- create a new district
- order an existing district to convey realty to the proposed new district
- determine which district is responsible for liens, mortgages and encumbrances on property
- decline to recommend creation of a new district, instead directing requesters to prevail upon the existing district to agree to the new district.
The opinion found that the secretary has the authority to create a district, convey realty to the proposed new district and decline to recommend creation of a new district.
In regards to which district is responsible for debts, the opinion found that "the school district that incurred the indebtedness would remain responsible for the debt on the transferred property."
The bond issue has come up in discussions over the proposed split, with opponents using the district's bond debt to argue that a split would not be granted.
"One of the considerations is the financial impact upon CCSD if there was a split," Preminger said. "If CCSD had to pay for buildings it does not own, it would have a huge negative impact upon students and their education. We do not believe the secretary would support such an action."
Wood claims Children First has not generated financial reports to show how the bond debt would be paid. Nor has the group exhibited how it will fund renovations or replacements of schools listed at the state level as needing work, he said.
"To get a quality education, Kirtland would probably have to double our property taxes," he said. "At the very least, the state would have to support the new district for several years."
Splitting the district would create "two small, financially weak districts," Wood said. "Personally, I don't want my kids in a district that doesn't have any money."
Manning, however, believes the attorney general's opinion does not mean taxpayers in the new district would be excused from paying on existing bonds.
"The original district will still be responsible for paying its bonds, but the taxpayers who voted on the bond will be responsible to continue paying those taxes," he said. "It does not excuse taxpayers; all it does is say the original district is still making the payment."
Manning also claims tax rates in the new district would not change, despite CCSD's continued claims that a split would double or triple property taxes in Kirtland. The new district would have the capability of extending bonds for future projects, and taxpayers would have to approve those bonds.
"As you pay off debt, you increase your bond capacity," he said. "If you do it right, taxes stay at a steady rate."