Farmington — The state education department has finally weighed in on the bus transportation disagreement between the Central Consolidated School District and Gallup McKinley County Schools.

New Mexico State Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera issued her decision after receiving an Oct. 29 letter from GMCS board president Bruce Tempest that requested she resolve the transportation boundary dispute.

Skandera's Jan. 10 letter was sent to the GMCS and CCSD school boards and superintendents. In the letter, Skandera sided with CCSD officials and concluded the law outlines the process for districts to cross into each other's boundaries.

In a statement, CCSD officials said they are pleased with the decision.

"The New Mexico Public Education Department's Jan. 10, 2014 letter to the Gallup McKinley County School District restates (this time in an opinion) what the PED wrote to the Gallup McKinley superintendent last fall: follow the law. That is what we have been saying this entire time," the district stated.

A call requesting comment from GMCS Superintendent Frank Chiapetti was not immediately returned.

The dispute began shortly after the school year started when GMCS started providing bus transportation for a number of students who reside in Naschitti but attend schools in Tohatchi.

Naschitti is located along U.S. Highway 491 in San Juan County and within CCSD's boundaries. Tohatchi is along the highway but in McKinley County and in the boundaries of GMCS.

GMCS officials stated they started the service after parents raised concerns about the safety of students, who either walked along the highway or were dropped off by their parents, to reach the GMCS bus stop located south of the line dividing McKinley/San Juan counties.

GMCS ended its bus transportation in September after meeting with CCSD officials.

The two districts tried to negotiate an agreement but failed to reach one during a joint meeting Oct. 23 in Naschitti.

In Skandera's letter, she highlighted the sections of state law that govern transportation distribution, services, boundary agreements and the resolution process.

"It does not appear that a transportation boundary agreement is possible in this case -- choice is not enumerated as a justification for an agreement to transport students who reside outside of a district," Skandera wrote. "To the contrary, transportation boundary agreements are specifically prohibited in instances where attending an out of district school is a matter of choice."

Skandera noted transportation boundary agreements are allowed when geographical conditions make it impractical to transport students to schools within the districts they reside.

She further commented that many students living in Naschitti attend CCSD schools so the geographical conditions are not hindering their attendance, and the two districts are not arguing the district boundary be redrawn.

Skandera said she takes student safety seriously and parents do have "as much choice as possible" in regards to their children's education.

"However, the law is clear -- a school district may only receive transportation distribution for transporting students within the district and transportation boundary agreements are not authorized to provide services to students who attend school out-of-district as a matter of choice," she wrote.

In November, the Navajo Nation Council's Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee passed legislation supporting and recommending the negotiation of a cooperative agreement between the tribe, McKinley and San Juan counties, and the state public education department for student transportation.

Delegate Jonathan Hale, who represents Oak Springs and St. Michaels in Arizona, sponsored the bill and said Thursday that his legislative district assistant is drafting a memorandum to send to the state education department, along with the resolution.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.