The school district purchased property for a possible new school in Bluff in 2015. A group of concerned parents and community members began an effort to oppose a new building of the property, fearing that it may be compromised by Native American archaeology on the site.
School officials state that the opposition is premature, and they have no intention of building a new school without carefully investigating the property.
“Certain individuals have decided to spread the word that the site is full of burials,” said Superintendent Doug Wright. “That is not true. We feel that once we get the correct information out into the community about the property and how the school will be sited, we can move ahead.
“Until then, the project is on hold until we can get the correct information out there and get input from the community.”
Opposition to building a new school on the recently-purchased ground seems to come from two main sources: those concerned about the Native American artifacts on the site and those who would prefer to have a new school in another location.
The existing Bluff School is one of the oldest buildings in the school district. Over the years, three separate leech fields have been built on the school property.
When the third leech field was installed in 2001, the school district announced that there was no additional room for a leech field.
As a result, the district announced that unless the Bluff community installed a waste water system, the district may close the school if the new leech field failed.
After several years of trying to build consensus, the effort to build a community-wide waste water system failed. Since that time, the school has been on borrowed time, with officials concerned that the school would have to close if the leech field failed.
“We feel it is just a matter of time that the system fails, and we will have to evacuate the building,” said Superintendent Wright.
District officials state that careful water management and limited grass watering has helped extend the life of the leech field. Originally engineered for a five-year life, the field is now in its sixteenth year.
In January, 2015, the school district purchased 12.5 acres of ground on the west edge of Bluff for the possible site of a new school. Five acres were purchased at half of the appraised value from local landowners. The remainder was purchased from a second landowner. The 12.5 acres cost approximately $500,000.
After the purchase, Abajo Archaeology conducted a preliminary survey of the land that showed four archaeological sites on the property, including a burial site that had been excavated and evacuated as part of a highway project in 1980.
The evacuated burial site is under the power line right-of-way in a utility easement on the southeast border of the property.
The other archaeology sites are primarily scattered remains, including a fire pit and potshards.
The school district has sought input from a variety of sources, including tribal officials, state officials, community officials and the parents of students at Bluff Elementary.
In a recent survey of student families, approximately two-thirds of responses are in favor of using the new property, while one-third are opposed.
At the May 10 meeting of the school board, residents from the Mexican Water area discussed their proposal to construct a new school on Highway 191 near mile marker 12, approximately 10 miles north of Mexican Water and 10 miles south of Bluff.
Many community members in the Mexican Water area would prefer that a new school be built closer to their community.
The school district has mentioned several concerns about building a new facility on the reservation, including land ownership; water, power and other utility infrastructure; emergency services availability; distance students will be bussed; and housing.
The school district rents several dozen housing properties to teachers and staff in Montezuma Creek, Halchita, Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain. The housing challenges in these areas are very expensive for the schools to address.
Enrollment at the Bluff School has grown in recent years, from approximately 65 students in 2006 to 136 in 2016. Students from a large area attend the school, including from the Bluff and Mexican Water communities.