Navajo Head Start spent $35,000 to send 15 to Hawaii conference

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 11-07

The Navajo Nation’s federal Head Start program, which last year had its funding temporarily revoked after a scathing report detailed a host of problems including inadequate financial controls, recently spent more than $35,000 to send 15 people to an education conference in Hawaii.

Lamont Yazzie, interim director of the Navajo Nation Head Start program, told The Associated Press that he wanted his staff to be well-represented at the National Indian Education Association’s conference during October in Honolulu – in part to address some of the program’s past deficiencies.

He said approval to send 15 members of his team was granted only after he was assured that certain trouble areas were being addressed. In the two months he has served as interim director, Yazzie said he has focused on improving areas including having state licensed mental health professionals and program planning and monitoring.

“Because our concentration on Head Start has been remedying deficiencies, I felt confident that we had taken care of deficiencies, and I wanted to make sure overall that Head Start is moving forward, and this is one area that has been neglected,” Yazzie said.

“It’s not money that should have been directed to other areas,” he said. “They were moneys developed for staff development and training.”

Yazzie also said he first got approval of the federal Administration for Children and Families, which funds the Head Start program. Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the agency, said travel is an allowable Head Start expense under certain guidelines.

In revoking funding last year, the ACF found wide-ranging threats to children’s safety, such as broken, jagged play equipment; dogs and horses being allowed to roam through playgrounds; and broken heaters in classrooms. A report also cited a lack of financial controls, and found dozens of employees of the program with criminal records.

Funding for the programs was reinstated later in the year after Navajo officials worked to correct the deficiencies.

The total number of Navajo attendees at the Honolulu conference has come under scrutiny after the Farmington Daily Times reported Nov. 3 that 362 members of the tribe had preregistered for it.

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. R-New Mexico, subsequently called for an inquiry to determine how much federal money was used for the trip and whether it was spent appropriately.

At least one other federal lawmaker was awaiting the outcome of that inquiry.

“We’ve been told that no federal funding was misused and had no reason to doubt that,” Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Wednesday. “But we now know that the Department of Interior will be taking a very close look at the situation.”

Lillian Sparks, executive director of NIEA, said that the 362 figure could include enrolled members of the tribe from anywhere across the United States, who do not live on the reservation and are not representatives of the tribal government.

Navajo officials confirmed that they sent 50 representatives of the Navajo Nation government, which includes the 15 Head Start workers, at a cost of more than $110,000.

Referring to the Head Start attendees, Yazzie said that sending fewer people to the Hawaii conference would not have been effective. There were about 12 workshops on topics ranging from congressional appropriations to indigenous language immersion in early childhood classrooms and preparing American Indian youth for higher education that were held at the same time.

Upon return from the conference, Yazzie said the Head Start held a strategic planning session and the attendees shared information on such things as immersion programs, acculturation and language revitalization with the staff.

Eddie Biakeddy, acting superintendent of the Department of Dine Education, said his staff, which includes Head Start, always has participated in the conference either as presenters or attendees.

“It’s really an opportunity for programs from within our department of education to find out information about programs throughout the United States and get ideas from that,” he said. “It allows us to make contacts with people in the field and then try to collaborate as far as sharing information and supporting efforts that work.”

Critics contend that the money might have been better spent on scholarships, unpaid bills, early childhood development or new buildings.

Milton Bluehouse Sr. a former interim Navajo leader, said “quite a few people” in his community of Ganado, Ariz., are asking “what did we get out of this and how is our education going to be impacted.”

Concerns over the way Head Start was operating had been simmering for years before it was shut down last year, he said.

“With that many people going, you would think those problems would be solved,” he said.

The Navajo Nation is country’s largest American Indian reservation, spanning 27,000 square miles into parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Tribal membership stands at almost 300,000, second only to the Cherokee Nation.