The Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education spent $70,820 to send 27 people to a Hawaii conference, adding to a growing tally believed to be around $1 million for as many as 400 tribal representatives.

The 27 sent from the education department were funded by Navajo Nation or federal government money and ran the spectrum of board members, administrative staff and parents. They joined hundreds more Navajo last October at the 2007 National Indian Education Association Conference in Honolulu.

A federal investigation is under way to determine if government money was misused in the travel, but The Daily Times has submitted almost 150 Freedom of Information Requests to various federal, Navajo and education agencies requesting data on who went, who paid and at what cost.

The response to those requests varies, as some entities complied with the public records law while others seem to be ignoring it, possibly exposing themselves to further legal action.

From the Navajo Nation Board of Education, three board members attended, as did one board staff member. One staff member each from the offices of administration; Monitoring, Evaluation and Technical Assistance; North Central Association; and the Office of Educational Research and Statistics all went.

In addition to those attendees, four staff members from the Office of Diné Science, Math and Technology traveled.

Head Start sent 13 staff members and two parents at a cost of slightly more than $34,566, bringing the department's total to $70,820.

But that sum only accounts for a portion of the overall price tag of Navajo travel to the conference.

The tribe's legislative government branch sent at least 18 of its 88 members to Hawaii, spending $45,000.

At least three people from the executive branch, including Navajo President Joe Shirley and his wife, traveled, but President Shirley is among those who has refused to provide The Daily Times requested information.

Diné Education Superintendent Eddie Biakeddy declined to comment.

However, several sources, including travelers to the conference, have told The Daily Times that a large number of the attendees were school board members from districts spread throughout the Navajo education system. Among the sources were teachers who contacted the newspaper to complain about perceived misuse of money they felt desperately needed to go directly to the schools, but few would provide their names for fear of being fired.

A failed deadline

The deadline to respond to Freedom of Information requests The Daily Times sent to individual schools, school districts and education officials has come and gone.

The last of The Daily Times' requests to inspect public records were sent in late November. The law states the agencies had 20 days to respond. Complying with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that demands open access to public information has not been a priority for many school officials on the Navajo Nation.

School officials at tribally-operated grant schools ignored the request for records pertaining to what schools, districts and officials sent delegates to Hawaii and what it cost to send them.

The Daily Times learned last October that 362 people identifying themselves as Navajo preregistered for the event. That information led to an investigation by The Daily Times into where all these attendees came from.

Other than public schools, two types of schools operate on the Navajo Nation and receive federal dollars. They are Bureau of Indian Education schools, a subset of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and grant schools.

The difference between BIE schools and grant schools is who oversees them.

BIE schools answer to BIE officials, who are federal employees, and grant schools answer to the tribe, said Kevin Skenandore, acting director of the Bureau of Indian Education.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees or directly operates 184 elementary and secondary day and boarding schools serving 45,000 students living on or near 63 federal Indian reservations in 23 states.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, about two-thirds of BIE schools are tribally operated under BIE contracts or grants. 

In response to formal requests sent out by The Daily Times in November, the Bureau of Indian Education has released information about how many of its 32 schools on the Navajo Nation sent delegates to the conference.

The Bureau of Indian Education reports that 29 people went to Hawaii at a cost of $58,372. The breakdown of which BIE schools sent people and how many they sent was not available last week.

What is known at this time is that certain schools chose to send multiple representatives while others did not send a single delegate.

"There was a significant number of schools that didn't send any," Skenandore said.

The recommendation made to BIE-operated schools was that they send only one school board member.

"I moved forward with the recommendation that they not send more than one, but that was for BIE-operated schools. We don't control what a tribally controlled school (does)," Skenandore said.

Grant schools over-represented?

A few of the school officials who wrote responses to The Daily Times said the trip to Hawaii was too expensive to consider sending representatives.

But other schools, mostly grant schools, had no problem in sending multiple delegates.

Ch'ooshagai Community School, a grant school in Tohatchi with an enrollment of 370 students, originally intended to send eight people to the conference. Two backed out.

However, the pair who decided not to go, both board members, could not refund their plane tickets or the registration costs. After all expenses were paid, the school dished out $18,804 to send the remaining six delegates, comprising of five board members and the human resource director.

Edwin Begay, human resource director, said that schools on the reservation have difficulties making No Child Left Behind benchmarks and that Ch'ooshagai board members sought a new approach to passing muster.

"We could have made it but where we are weak for AYP is attendance. Our children have to be here that whole (testing) week to be counted," Begay said. "We have to have 100 percent attendance during that week. If we have one child missing, we don't make AYP. The (conference) provided work sessions that .... (showed) what things schools do to (correct these problem areas)."

The money that covered travel and accommodation expenses came from an interest-fund account, which is separate from the main budget, Begay said. Only Begay used money from an administrative cost grant.

Worst responders

The worst response rate to the FOI requests was from Arizona grant schools. Only three of the Daily Times' dozens of requests were answered.

Two of the schools — Second Mesa Day School and Cibecue Community School — sent no one to Hawaii.

Nazlini Community School in Nazlini, Ariz., sent three representatives at a cost of $9,885.42. The grant school has 108 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and 21 who are charter students.

Nazlini Administrator Ronald Arias' single comment was that he shared the information only because he was obligated by law.

Other grant schools that sent multiple representatives included New Mexico's Shiprock Associated Schools, which sent six to the conference.

Navajo Preparatory School, a grant school with a student body of about 200 students in Farmington, sent two people to the conference but only paid for one to attend.

It cost Navajo Prep $3,646 to send Board President Edison Wauneka to the conference, Executive Director Betty Ojaye said.

When told how several grant schools sent half a dozen people, Ojaye responded: "Oh, my gosh. With our school funds, we have to prioritize where we sent people. ... NIEA is a place where we like to send people, but our funds cannot afford to send more than one or two people."

Grant schools, said one official who refused to go on record, do not answer to the Navajo Nation. They operate independently and answer to their own elected boards. Deciding how many representatives to send is left in their own hands.

In defense of the trip, Skenandore, from the Bureau of Indian Education, said that paying to travel to Hawaii is a good deal compared to many other locations in the United States.

"Let's just say that if the conference was held in Turtle Mountain, N.D., or something like that, the travel cost would be higher," Skenandore said. "I can tell you that ... it's $1,200 to $1,500 for a flight when you can get flights to Hawaii for half that cost."

However, The Daily Times reported earlier that a far fewer number of Navajo representatives attended the three previous NIEA conferences, two of which were in nearby Phoenix and Denver.

Most of the travel costs for the Hawaii trip confirmed so far seem to average almost $2,500 per traveler. The total expenditure, at that rate, would top $900,000 if only the preregistered 362 attended, but many more are believed to have traveled and registered on site, according to conference officials and attendees. If as many as 400 attended, the cost estimate would be $1 million.

Cory Frolik: cfrolik@daily-times.com