FARMINGTON — To split or not to split the Central Consolidated School District?

State Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera has 10 days to answer that question, based in part on remarks made Wednesday during a four-hour, quasi-judicial public hearing at San Juan College.

Skandera, who acted as hearing officer in front of a crowd of more than 300 spectators, has only two options. She either will decide that creating the 90th public school district in New Mexico is in the best interest of all involved, or that CCSD should stay intact.

She promised a written answer by May 29.

Wednesday's meeting came almost one year to the day of a controversial board meeting May 17, 2011, during which the board voted 4-1 to close the Kirtland Business Office and move all administrative functions to Shiprock.

Nine days later, the board voted 3-2 to put former superintendent Gregg Epperson on administrative leave, despite a vote three months earlier to extend his contract.

These actions sparked the formation of the Kirtland community group Children First, which gathered signatures of 60 percent of registered voters in a proposed new school district on a petition delivered to the state Public Education Department.

Wednesday's hearing was the education department's response to the petition.

Skandera called the meeting to order by stating she had no preconceived ideas and would listen to all the evidence with an open mind. Further, she told the crowd that the role and origin of Children First, which has become controversial in its methods and members, was of no importance to the decision.

"As far as the PED is concerned, we are making a decision based on (what) 60 percent of voters (want)," she said.

During the hearing, Skandera allotted 45 minutes each for the groups for and against the split to present evidence and commentary. Then she allowed 45 minutes for citizens wishing to speak in favor of a split, followed by 45 minutes of testimony from citizens opposing the split.

The burden of proof fell on the petitioners, who had to demonstrate that splitting the 3,000-square-mile district is in the best interest of students in both districts and of public education in the state as a whole.

Skandera is tasked with making the ultimate decision.

A ruling in favor of a new district could improve educational standards and morale in the Kirtland area, but it also would be contrary to the official stances of the district, the Navajo Nation and the district's teachers union, the Central Consolidated Education Association.

District administrators on Wednesday presented resolutions opposing the split from Navajo chapters — or communities on the reservation — that send students to district schools.

Although a split could resolve long-standing issues between the Kirtland and Shiprock areas of the district, it also could rekindle historical racial tensions, opponents said Wednesday.

"You feel the tension in this room now," Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim said. "The Navajo Nation strongly opposes the split. It's not in the best interest of children, of the schools, of the community, of the future. ...This proposal directly, negatively impacts the Navajo Nation."

Jim called creation of a new district a step back to the Jim Crow era, a time when racial segregation was legal and members of different racial backgrounds could not use the same drinking fountains.

"The Navajo Nation is entering this debate because the majority of the students in (CCSD) are Navajo," Jim said.

"The main concern for the leadership of the Navajo Nation is ... when we create two districts, we force our people to make decisions, to say schools" off the reservation are better.

"We have struggled for years to undo the colonized Navajo mind," he said.

Proponents of the split claimed the action has nothing to do with race and everything to do with academic success and parent involvement. Byron Manning, a spokesman for the proposed Kirtland School District and former finance director for the district, presented data that showed the optimal size of a school district is between 1,500 and 3,300 students. CCSD supports a student population of about 6,600.

"Two small districts are cheaper to run than one large district," Manning said during a 35-minute presentation he used to debunk many of the district's claims.

The Kirtland group wants smaller districts, which, according to Manning, have lower rates of truancy, dropouts and violence as well as higher graduation rates and test scores, more students going on to college, better parent involvement and more local control on the school board.

Manning also told Skandera that smaller districts cost less per graduating student than do larger districts. He used other local districts as evidence. For example, he said, Aztec spends $131,000 per graduate while CCSD spends $183,000 per graduate, or 40 percent more.

Although startup costs of a new district could be pricey, in the long run, a smaller district that graduates more students saves the state money, Manning said. Each cohort of high school dropouts costs the state $522 million, he said. That number comes from loss of income, unemployment costs and loss of taxes paid to the state.

"Financially, it is smarter to have more smaller districts," he said. "When you look at the real cost per student, the cost to graduate a student, smaller is better. ...New Mexico data shows that the graduation rates of both districts will increase simply by giving us two districts."

Administrative costs also would be cut if the district splits, Manning said. CCSD during the 2011-12 school year funded 96 administrative positions, costing $5.7 million, he said. In the coming school year, it has 92 administrators, costing the district $5.5 million.

The proposed Kirtland School District would fund 28 administrative positions at a cost of $2 million, he said.

"The district is cheaper economically and it brings parents into better involvement," he said.

A split, though geographically separating the Kirtland community from the greater reservation area of the district, would not diminish the presence of American Indian students in the news district, he said. According to 2010 Census data, the American Indian population in Kirtland grew 35 percent since 2000, as opposed to an 8 percent increase of Anglo residents.

District statistics, as of April 27, show that American Indian students in the Kirtland area make up 79 percent of the total student population.

But district data also shows that as many as 250 students every day are transported to Kirtland schools from other areas of the district. That worries opponents of the split who believe parents will continue taking students to Kirtland but won't have voting rights in that district.

Superintendent Don Levinski also cited concerns about the emotional health of students.

"Just the talk of the split has had an emotional effect on the students," he said. "They were never considered in the petition."

Other administrators talked about a history of separation in the area and the negative toll a split would take on the community as a whole.

Board President Matthew Tso said a split would take the district "back to some of the darkest days of our (Navajo) Nation that cannot and should not be forgotten."

He said the proposal was motivated by attitudes of segregation and racism, of pinning "badges of inferiority" on people.

"The proposed split is exactly just that — it is creating divisions between our communities," he said. The Kirtland group is "using race as a bogeyman. What kind of message does that send?"

Opponents of the split cautioned the state that siding with Kirtland could open the door for civil rights lawsuits based on a separation of students along the reservation line and the fact that most Anglo students would go to school in the new district.

A similar attempt to split the district 30 years ago failed when the state education board agreed a split could be discriminatory and make the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

During the 1982 hearing, however, attorneys representing the Kirtland area cited tensions between the two groups that "could be lessened by a division of the present district."

Those tensions remain, the Kirtland group said Wednesday.

"This problem started many years ago," said Randy Manning, who has sat on the district board for two decades. "Each area has a different set of values. The differences in education philosophies between Shiprock and Kirtland are immense."

Among those differences is a view of the Navajo language immersion program and a focus on teaching native language and culture in the schools. Manning for years has sought answers to questions about the effectiveness of the program in mainstream education and in preparing students for real life. He never has received a satisfactory answer, he said.

Skandera, by law, has 10 days from Wednesday's hearing to provide her decision. Because that deadline falls on a Saturday, followed by the Memorial Day weekend, she promised to deliver her decision by Tuesday, May 29.