State Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera on Friday afternoon issued a decision to keep the district intact.
The decision came more than three weeks after Skandera hosted a quasi-judicial public hearing in Farmington on May 16 to hear arguments for and against a split, which would have allowed the Kirtland area to break from the 3,000-square-mile district.
"The decision to keep CCSD intact was not an easy one, but it is the right one," Skandera wrote in a letter she released along with her formal decision. "Drawing a district boundary along lines to distinctly separate certain communities is not in the best interest of our children.
"The diverse populations in Kirtland and Shiprock serve as an opportunity to teach our children about what it truly means to work together," she wrote. "No doubt there are struggles and differences of opinion, but the ultimate lesson our children need is to overcome, not divide those obstacles."
Gov. Susana Martinez shared the news of the decision Friday during her state Tribal Leaders Summit in Mescalero. Navajo President Ben Shelly was in attendance, as were several members of the Navajo Nation Council.
"I think this decision hopefully will get us back to focusing on children," said Russell Begaye, the Navajo Council delegate representing Shiprock. "As adults, we became kids. Hopefully this decision will bring us back to sanity."
Friday's decision ends a yearlong struggle between Kirtland and the rest of the district over politics, administration and education philosophies.
Skandera, when she decided against the split, joined forces with district administrators, many of the individual Navajo chapters that passed resolutions opposing the split, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, the Navajo Nation Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee, the tribe's legislative branch and the Office of the President and Vice President.
It signals a desire to keep the district together despite long-standing disagreements, including those based on race or religion, Begaye said. The proposed split likely would have occurred along the Navajo Nation border, separating those living on tribal land from those off the reservation.
"Even though Kirtland is not on the reservation, it is as much a part of the district as Shiprock or Newcomb," Begaye said. "I think we lost the focus on who were are when we started drawing lines by race and religion. We are a community of different races and we were blinded by politics. There was a lot of power play, and out of that rises animosity and name-calling."
Although Skandera opposed the split, her decision came with strict expectations.
"The divisiveness displayed by both sides of this issue is no longer an option," Skandera wrote. "The potential of our students is too great and the hard work of their communities is too important.
"In this decision there is tremendous opportunity for the children of CCSD," she wrote. "The struggles and issues that have been present in the district for years can finally be put aside if the adults in charge choose to do so."
Opponents of the split, including the district's administration and four of the five elected board members, claimed the split was racially motivated and that it would hurt Navajo children.
When reached for comment Monday, district spokesman James Preminger said the district was pleased with Skandera's decision.
"We're very grateful to Secretary Skandera and hope that this brings some closure to a difficult year," Preminger said. "We're glad to have this news."
Proponents of the split claimed smaller school districts meant higher test scores, more rigorous academics and better local control and parent involvement. Those seeking a split were angry with Skandera's decision, which they called political and a solution they could not accept.
Those in favor of a split presented data during the May 16 hearing that showed separating the district would mean higher rates of high school graduates in both districts. They also claimed small districts spend less money per graduate and that fewer students per district meant fewer problems with truancy and violence.
Skandera's decision Friday ignored the facts, said Randy Manning, a board member representing the Kirtland area for the last 19 years.
"This decision was not based on data or on the education of kids," Manning said. "This was based on politics. It had everything to do with being afraid of civil rights lawsuits."
Indeed, the issue of civil rights came up in many forms during the past year, and even before that. A similar effort to split the district failed 30 years ago, based in part on the state education board's fears that approving a split would open the state to civil rights lawsuits.
In the state board's 1982 decision, however, members cited as a reason to split "tensions between the two groups (that) could be lessened by a division of the present district."
Those same tensions surfaced again last year when the Kirtland community group Children First formed to protest the closure of the Kirtland Business Office, a historic building in the area.
Members began gathering signatures on a petition to the state Public Education Department to seek a public hearing to determine whether splitting the district was in the best interest of students in both districts and of public education in the state as a whole.
Children First also complained about the governing board's actions, including its decision to put former Superintendent Gregg Epperson on administrative leave and appoint Don Levinski in his place.
The board came under further fire when it offered Levinski the permanent superintendent position without first advertising for other applicants.
Children First submitted signatures of 60 percent of registered voters in the proposed new district — the Kirtland area and not including any tribal lands — in November. Because of a filing error, the group had to resubmit the petition in January, and the PED held its hearing in May.
Skandera recognized Children First in her Friday letter.
"The tremendous effort undertaken by the petitioners was a heavy factor in my decision," she wrote. "Countless hours of work on signatures, research and presentations were not ignored. For so many people to work so hard on behalf of students is not only commendable, but truly impressive. This effort should be a clear signal to CCSD of the work still to be done to include the Kirtland community in the decisions of the district."