Several times during the CCSD Board of Education's work session Thursday, board members and school officials spoke at length about the positive aspects of the trip, which they say are being overlooked. School officials criticized news reports on the issue, claiming the coverage is biased, unfair and intent on stirring up controversy.
The value of the conference, such as learning best practices for language revitalization and language immersion straight from the source: native Hawaiians who are leaps and bounds ahead of the Navajo Nation in both these regards, was never mentioned, said school board member Elayne Lowe and others who spoke.
"Where else besides Native-run conferences do we hear intelligent discussions about Indian Education? Where else do we receive education success indicators of indigenous best practices? Where else do we honor our cultural intelligence?" Lowe asked.
The newspaper on its opinion pages has criticized CCSD, the Navajo Nation government and other school districts for sending too many representatives, claiming that the conference still would be useful if fewer travelers attended and instead brought home to share with others their lessons learned, while saving the money for school needs.
A story in the Nov. 3 Daily Times reported that 362 people with Navajo ties preregistered for the conference, and more than that number are believed to have attended, at a cost of at least a half million dollars.
CCSD Interim Superintendent Charles Hayes said he specifically wanted to send officials and administrators to Hawaii because it was a successful model of Indian Education that he found worth studying. With respect to the $15,000 price tag, Hayes considered the money well spent.
"I am sorry we couldn't send more. I'd do it again," he said.
Lowe expressed her concern that some people viewed the money as better spent on students and their supplies. She asked Byron Manning, executive director of finance and business operations for the district, if the federal Johnson O'Malley funds that paid for her trip could have helped purchase student textbooks.
"Well, Johnson O'Malley funds have never been spent on textbooks," he answered.
That answer is inconsistent with the information on the NIEA Web site that lists books and student supplies as among the many instructional materials available through Johnson O'Malley funding.
In a response to a 2006 survey, the NIEA reported that "JOM funds helped students achieve and succeed by providing such services as: books and other reading materials, tutoring services, summer school, scholastic and testing fees, school supplies ..."
At the meeting's end, board member Hoskie Benally Jr. gave a 10-minute speech describing why he viewed the news coverage as deliberately inflammatory and suspicious, when, he said, the former district administration took more or equally expensive trips without any media scrutiny.
"I see that the motive of the newspaper is to plant the thought in the mind of the community people that something may illegally be happening, and that's not fair," he said.
Editor Troy Turner defended the newspaper's coverage.
"It's pretty simple. We feel our role is to defend the defenseless, and in this case, it appears to be the children of the Navajo Nation," Turner said. "And then there is the matter of accountability for taxpayers.
"We have tried hard to be fair with our stories on the front page, but it is very difficult to get more balance when most of the people who spent time in Hawaii on government money aren't coming forward, including Navajo President Joe Shirley," he said. "We welcome any criticism of our coverage, but we are more welcome of answers as to why it took so many to travel so far, when that was not the case at the same gathering when it was in Phoenix and Denver. We find that worthy of questions beyond hearing about the program agenda."
Cory Frolik: firstname.lastname@example.org