FARMINGTON — The Central Consolidated School District still is waiting for resolution from the state Public Education Department regarding the possible discipline of its acting superintendent and a proposed split that would divide the 3,000-square-mile district along the reservation line.

But to many, the division already has occurred.

The district, part of the public school system since 1931, already is severed along lines of race and religion, not to mention opinions about political control, curriculum, personnel, money and the teachers union.

To some, actions within the district since May have permanently fractured an already vulnerable community. To others, the radical changes signal a sign of better times ahead.

Regardless of the outcome, the district's players, along with state and legal representatives, have a long road ahead.

 

Historic tension

The Navajo word for Mormon is "Gaamalii," a term the Diné used to describe the fledgling religious communities and missionary efforts that started trickling onto the reservation a century and a half ago.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Shortly afterward, they started moving south, colonizing locations in Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico.


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Along the way — and continuing into the present — the Mormons interacted with American Indians, converting them to the religion, operating trading posts and transporting roughly 20,000 of their children to foster homes or student placement programs largely in Utah.

And so began a relationship between two cultures that are at once similar and disparate. At best, they co-exist; at worst, they lead to an impasse so complete outside entities must intervene.

The Mormons also founded Kirtland, home of six of the Central Consolidated School District's 17 schools, in the 1880s, and named the community after Kirtland, Ohio, one of the early headquarters of the Mormon church.

The Kirtland Business Office, the topic of recent and emotional debate, is the site of the district's first school. Built after the district formed in 1917, the school represented the consolidation of community schools in Kirtland and neighboring Fruitland.

The district expanded to encompass reservation communities in Shiprock, Newcomb, Naschitti and Ojo Amarillo — a 3,000-acre chunk of land that stretches west to the Arizona state border, north to Colorado and south to the McKinley County line.

But the Kirtland area, in a move unprecedented in the state, is trying to split from the reservation portion as a reactive measure after the board voted May 17 to close the KBO and move administration to Shiprock.

 

Mormons and Indians

A deadlock between the two cultures is at least partly to blame for the political climate in the district since May, when the board and administrators began making drastic changes in personnel, policies and facilities.

At the root of much of that clash is a belief that Anglo Mormons long have dominated the district and held onto the purse strings.

"The allegation is that the Mormons have run the district for years," said Byron Manning, the former director of finance and operations who resigned in 2011 after working in the district for 10 years.

Manning, an Anglo Mormon, reached a settlement with the district in December and agreed not to pursue a lawsuit against the district claiming his termination was discriminatory and based on religion and race.

Manning denies that Mormons ever had any kind of majority hold on the district, its finances or operations.

"From 1931 until the present, there has never been a Mormon superintendent," he said.

"I can only think of one Mormon assistant superintendent," Byron said.

Mormons don't dominate the administration or the governing board, either, according to district data.

Since 1980, the board has never had more than one Anglo Mormon member. Byron's brother, Randy Manning, an Anglo Mormon and perhaps the board's longest-serving member, has served consecutively since 1993.

He was the only Anglo Mormon on the board for the last 19 years — until the board in October appointed Chad Wood to fill the seat vacated when Bernice Benally died suddenly in September.

"I have always been the minority race and the minority religion as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Randy Manning said. "There has never been any Mormon control of the district. It shows the stupidity of those who are pushing that agenda."

Of the district's 16 principals, none are Mormon; of its top 14 administrators prior to May — superintendent, assistant superintendents and directors — three were Anglo Mormon and one was Navajo Mormon.

Of the district's top 30 positions prior to May, Anglo Mormons held only three, or 10 percent.

That changed after the board, in back-to-back decisions, placed Superintendent Gregg Epperson on leave and replaced him with Don Levinski, former principal at Tse'Bit'Ai Middle School.

Levinski fired one of those Anglo Mormons and demoted the other two: one to a coordinator position and one to grounds foreman, leaving the district with only one Anglo Mormon in its top 30 positions. The Navajo Mormon also was demoted from a director position to coordinator.

Levinski is accused in a Dec. 29 complaint of targeting Anglos and Mormons when he launched this "mass demotion" of directors while simultaneously promoting non-Anglos and non-Mormons.

Levinski, along with the district, two board members and a handful of employees, is accused of demoting or terminating 11 high-ranking administrators, 10 of whom were targeted because of their race, religion or both.

The action came amid a massive restructuring of administration that "has disparate impact on Mormons and Anglos," states the Dec. 29 complaint, which was filed in U.S. district court. The defendants "knew it had disparate impact on Mormons and Anglos and chose this restructuring ... specifically because of its disparate impact on Mormons and Anglos."

 

State discipline

The state Public Education Department also has threatened to suspend Levinski after an investigation revealed he acted outside his authority for six weeks without a contract, and promoted and demoted employees under "questionable circumstances."

Specifically, state education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera is accusing Levinski of actions that "reveal a pattern and practice of circumventing select state laws and rules, your district's own policies whose authority for adapting those policies derives from state law, disregarding the state Open Meetings Act and making questionable employment and administrative decisions contrary to board policy and the best interest of the community."

Levinski's actions also "have driven out longtime qualified employees and raised questions about whether the district's fiscal and educational programs can continue to be carried out in a responsible manner under (his) leadership," Skandera wrote.

Levinski has justified his decisions as a way of cutting administrative costs and putting more money into the classrooms, denying they were based on discrimination. He also admitted to demoting one individual based in part on complaints alleging that individual acted in a discriminatory manner.

But while his methods may be questionable, many who support Levinski and his wide-ranging restructuring efforts claim the changes are needed.

The district long has been criticized for not only being administration-heavy, but also heavy in top positions filled by Anglos and Mormons. The district boasts a 90-percent Navajo student population, but supports a much smaller number of top administrators who are Navajo or another minority.

That needed to change, board President Matthew Tso said.

"Based on the feedback I've personally received from parents, teachers, community members, and students, the district is much better off and is a better working and learning environment," he wrote in an email to The Daily Times. "One thing that Levinski and this administration has done is actually empower teachers to be in charge of their classrooms and principals to lead their schools, versus everything being top-down and dictated out of the central office."

Levinski's actions since taking over as superintendent seven months ago have done more to address issues than any other event in recent history, Tso said. Besides restructuring the district's administration, Levinski has promised more money for instruction and improved test scores.

Three board members during a Dec. 21 special meeting put their support of Levinski to a vote. Tso, Vice President Hoskie Benally and member Chad Wood voted unanimously to send a letter of support to the Public Education Department.

"We strongly believe and affirm that Acting Superintendent Levinski has done nothing wrong to justify the suspension of his authority," the letter states. "Our board stands in full support of Acting Superintendent Don Levinski, his decisions, his management team and actions regarding the district."

The letter warns the state that the board will take legal action should the Public Education Department further interfere with Levinski or the proposal to split the district. It also encourages the state to schedule, within the first 10 days of January, a meeting with the board and administration to resolve concerns "in a respectful and collaborative manner."

That meeting has not been scheduled, district spokesman James Preminger said Friday. Calls to a spokesman for the state Public Education Department were not returned.

 

Cultural clashes

The tension between Anglos and Navajos came to a crest at the May 17 board meeting during which Anglos spoke harshly against Navajos and rallied against the board's proposal to close the KBO and transfer administration to Shiprock.

They also spoke against the board's decision to vote on the proposal without first conducting a feasibility study that would determine the cost of moving and ultimate savings to the district.

Ignoring warnings from Superintendent Epperson and board member Randy Manning that night, the board passed the proposal in a 4-1 vote.

Many who opposed that move claimed it was motivated by retaliation and a desire to adopt the Navajo Preference in Employment Act in the district, which could mean highly qualified Anglo professionals would take a back seat in hiring preference to Navajo individuals with lesser experience.

The act instructs employers to select "any Navajo applicant or candidate who demonstrates the necessary qualifications for an employment position" in the case of hiring, promoting, transfer or upgrade, regardless of a non-Navajo applicants' qualifications.

The act, part of Navajo Nation Code and passed into law by the Tribal Council in 1985, allows tribal-owned or -operated businesses to give preference to those of Navajo descent. Its intent was to address the high unemployment rates on the reservation, which still hover at about 50 percent. It is unclear whether a public school district, even headquartered on tribal land, can be subject to the act.

Kirtland community members formed Children First to contest the closure, voicing concerns that their children would be taught by "minimally qualified" professionals. After a failed attempt to get a temporary restraining order that would have delayed the closure, Children First began gathering signatures on a petition to split the district.

In December, the group submitted to the state a petition with signatures from more than 60 percent of registered voters in the proposed new district. The state education department, under statute, must schedule a public hearing to determine whether the split is in the best interest of both districts.

A similar petition to split the district failed in 1982 when the state board of education voted it down, citing, among other reasons, a fear that approving a split would make the board vulnerable to civil rights lawsuits because most of the district's Anglo students would belong to the new district.

Board President Tso, who has called Children First an "openly racist, segregationist, anti-Navajo group," believes the state will reach the same conclusion this time around.

"These are issues of civil rights and segregation," he previously said. "Even if the state approved a split, it would invite an investigation into civil rights" that could stretch on for years.

Despite Children First's efforts to stop the closure of the Kirtland Business Office, the district moved forward, racking up a bill for about $245,000.

The May 17 meeting was a turning point for other reasons. Many in the district point to that meeting — and its 90 minutes of public comment period during which 32 community members spoke — as a revelation of racial biases within the district.

Many of comments that night took racial overtones, including an individual who criticized board Vice President Hoskie Benally's prayer because it wasn't in English, and there were several others who spoke against Navajo preference.

But the board and Levinski, who continued with the move after he was appointed May 28, have claimed closing the office had nothing to do with Navajo preference or retaliation on the Kirtland area for the 2010 decision to close one of the four Shiprock-area elementary schools.

The closure, Tso said, had everything to do with cutting administrative costs.

"The decision to move the KBO was never about Navajo Preference," he said. "It was a cost-saving proactive budgetary decision by our board, which will reap numerous benefits in the years to come."

The district has not released any numbers showing savings.

Such savings difficult to measure and will take time to realize, Preminger said.

"Part of the deal was to make the district and administration more efficient," he said. "For example, having finance and human resources under the same roof as the superintendent, that is very valuable, and how do you put a dollar amount on that?"

The district also is calculating into its savings the time and gas money no longer being spent to get all administrators in the same building.

"There used to be lots of driving back and forth from Shiprock to Kirtland, but now the superintendent just walks across the breezeway," Preminger said. "Everything is across the hall instead of 20 miles away."

But hard feelings about the closure continue, and they may stem from the building's historical, cultural and religious value, Byron Manning said.

"The district's first school was built at that site," he said. "Everyone talks about cultural ties, but everyone assumes you don't have cultural ties if you're Anglo. That building is our cultural tie."