Navajo committee proposes changes to tribal education law

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 4-08

Navajo lawmakers who serve on the Education Committee say the tribe’s board of education hasn’t made sufficient progress and Navajo people would be better served if the board had less responsibilities.

“We’re not squabbling with the board of education,” said Tribal Council Delegate Leonard Anthony. “Among themselves, they have disagreements, miscommunication, misrepresentation. They are not up to par to do their job.”

The committee wants to strip the board of its authority to hire an education superintendent and reduce the size of the 11-member board to seven, removing elected members. The Navajo president would appoint the superintendent and the board’s members, subject to confirmation by the committee.

The board would remain in an advisory capacity.

The Tribal Council convened April 21 in Window Rock, Ariz., for the start of its spring session. In his quarterly address to the council, Shirley said the proposal would disenfranchise voters who had elected some of the board members.

“Taking this action is wrong,” he said. “It leads this body down a path fraught with hazards and inevitable heartache. It tampers with our Democratic process and violates the people’s trust.”

The legislation stems from dealings with the tribe’s first Education Superintendent Tommy Lewis Jr. The board was split in its decision to fire Lewis last August, saying he failed to implement a strategic plan for the Department of Dine Education.

Anthony said the board has been divided since.

Board President Jimmie Begay and Vice President Rebecca Benally did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press.

Shirley cautioned against allowing personnel matters to stall progress of the tribe’s education law. The council amended the tribe’s education law in 2005 to establish a state-like department of education, a board and a superintendent.

“We must allow sufficient time to permit the law to work as intended for the benefit of our children and our nation,” Shirley said.

The board is charged with establishing a set of standards for the tribe that would implement tradition and culture. That includes working with Utah, New Mexico and Arizona to consolidate the states’ standards to include Navajo language and cultural knowledge.

The board currently monitors all U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and local community school boards on the Navajo Nation. It also establishes policies to guide the superintendent and the education department.

Those duties would transfer to the Education Committee under the proposed legislation.

Mary Helen Creamer is the latest person to serve as interim education superintendent since Lewis was ousted from the job. She said the board needs more time to work on the initiatives and pursue funding.

“They just need to begin to work together to iron out any difficulties they have,” she said. “It does not require any changes in the legislation itself. The legislation is fairly new and so is the board.”

Anthony said if the board was serious about improving education for Navajo children, it would have had something in place by now.

“We can actually begin to do something about it if it’s given to us,” he said.