Decision would have cut more than $7 million from program

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FARMINGTON — A federal court judge ruled the Navajo Nation is entitled to a multimillion-dollar federal grant to operate Navajo Head Start for fiscal year 2018.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich determined on Tuesday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not follow requirements when it reduced a $23 million grant to Navajo Head Start.

The Navajo Nation filed a complaint and a preliminary injunction on behalf of the program in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Feb. 2.

The tribe alleged the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Head Start Act and the Administrative Procedure Act when it reduced funding from $23 million to $15.7 million without providing sufficient notice to appeal.

Under the Head Start Act, the Department of Health and Human Services provides grants to tribes that operate Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

Grants can cover up to 80 percent of costs and are administered by the Administration for Children and Families, an entity under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Friedrich denied the preliminary injunction on Feb. 28 in addition to expediting the case.

Navajo Head Start operates two programs — Early Head Start and Head Start — in communities across the reservation.

The tribe was notified last year by the Administration for Children and Families that funding would be reduced by $7.3 million due to chronic under enrollment.

Court documents state the tribe has not meet the funded enrollment number of 2,068 students from March 2015 to January 2018.

During that period, the tribe reported enrollment ranged from 1,000 to 1,600 students despite efforts to increase student numbers, according to court documents.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch welcomed the court decision in a press release from the tribe's Department of Justice.

"The court's quick action to reverse this reduction will require the HHS Secretary to take stock of the challenges we face in operating this program," Branch said.

A press release from the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President reiterated the need for the federal government to provide adequate notice, appeal and hearing rights before such action is taken.

"We applaud the federal court for making sure the federal government provides proper notice, appeal and hearing rights are afforded before reducing any funding that impacts the cognitive development of our children," President Russell Begaye said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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