FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation is suing the Gallup-McKinley County Schools Board of Education after it approved a new school district map that the tribe said dilutes the impact of the district's voting population.

The legal fight threatens to disrupt a February school board election.

The Navajo Nation is suing the board under the claim that the new map is unconstitutional because it violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The tribe filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico on Dec. 6, a month after the board approved the map.

"The Challenged Plan adopted by the GMCSB unnecessarily packs Native American population into three districts... thus diluting the strength of the individual Native American votes in those districts, and fails to share sufficient Native American population with the remaining two districts," court documents said.

Aside from the tribe, plaintiffs include nine residents living within the school district. The defendants include all members of the school board, as well as Jacqueline Sloan, county clerk for McKinley County.

The new map, which goes into effect in January, includes five election districts, three with populations of about 60 percent Navajo, and two with about 40 percent. Overall, the school district is a little more than 70 percent Navajo.

The tribe shares land with two districts in New Mexico, one of which is Gallup-McKinley and the other, Central Consolidated School District. The tribe did not find issues with the map approved by the Central Consolidated board, which represents a district that has an 85 percent Navajo population.

The Central Consolidated board worked closely with the Navajo Nation, so as to avoid such conflict.

"It's almost like a no-brainer for us," said Matthew Tso, president of the Central Consolidated board.

Members of the board met with both the Navajo Human Rights Commission, and with members of the the Navajo Nation Council to discuss the best way to conduct redistricting and to serve its students.

As the Navajo Human Rights Commission had done with the Central Consolidated board, the commission had proposed its own map to the Gallup-McKinley board.

The commission's map created boundaries that more evenly balanced the population of Navajo. The board itself never met with the commission, which the tribe alleges is mandated by state law.

Instead a representative from Research and Polling, Inc. met with the commission. That firm was hired by the board to create a selection of maps for its review.

The board later rejected the map that Research and Polling and the commission created.

"Although less offensive districting plans were presented to GMCSB for consideration, GMCSB failed to adopt a districting plan, like that advocated by the Navajo Nation," court documents said.

The map had spread out the Navajo population among the five districts so that American Indians had "strong majorities" in three districts, but also had "sufficient" population in the remaining two districts, court documents said.

Andrew Sanchez, the Gallup-McKinley board's attorney, was unable to answer what percentage of Navajo were in each election district in the tribe's proposed map.

"The board did its due diligence in redistricting," Sanchez said from the Cuddy McCarthy Law Firm in Santa Fe. The board made every effort to make sure its maps met legal requirements, he said.

The board plans to meet in an executive session at the end of its general meeting Monday, according to the Dec. 17 agenda posted on the district website.

The meeting likely is in regards to the lawsuit, as the agenda item states that the board will meet about pending litigation between the Navajo Nation and the board.

"I'm not even aware that we are discussing that," said Mavis Price, president of the Gallup-McKinley board.

The board's action could confuse upcoming elections.

Board elections will be held in Districts 2, 4 and 5 on Feb. 5 and candidates must declare that they are running by Tuesday.

"I don't think elections will happen," said Sanchez.

The elections likely will be compromised by the lawsuit, Sanchez said, and will be delayed until the suit is settled. The board has the option of defending its current map, though it also could choose to compromise with the tribe and opt for another map.

"It just doesn't seem to make sense to provoke an unnecessary battle," said Tso, noting that this is not the first war of words that the tribe and the school district have shared.

In May, the Gallup-McKinley board voted to close three schools in Crownpoint, Tohatchi, and Navajo — all of which are communities on the Navajo reservation.

The board blamed their budget, though Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly declared that the board was violating state and federal laws by not first discussing the matter with the affected communities or the tribe.

The education department instructed the district not to do close the schools, essentially ending the issue.

"They should advocate on behalf of the students," Tso said of the Gallup-McKinley board.