San Juan School Board administers oath of office to two, selects a sixth board member, and discusses the process to select a new superintendent of schools
By David Boyle
The San Juan School District swore-in three board members, made plans to interview for the next district superintendent and discussed capital plans at their latest board meeting.
At their January 25 meeting, the district swore in three members to the school board to total six members on the board for the next two years.
Two board members sworn in were elected in the November 2022 election. Following the redistricting in 2021, two elections were held for the school board.
As a result of redistricting, board member Lucille Cody and Steven Black were placed in the same District Four. Cody was elected to serve on the board through 2022, while Black had been elected to serve through 2024.
As a result, Black will serve through 2024 when another election will be held for the District Four seat. With Black no longer in District Three, an election was held in November with Colleen Benally elected to represent the district.
Also elected this past November to a fifth term is Nelson Yellowman to represent District Five. Yellowman ran unopposed, but a late discovery that redistricting had placed another board member in Yellowman’s district threw a wrench in the election process.
The issue was discovered in October when board member Merri Shumway received her ballot and saw she was set to vote in the District Five school board elections. At that time, the San Juan County clerk's office discovered that Shumway was indeed in the same district as Yellowman.
If the discovery had been made ahead of the election a similar process would’ve played out for Districts Five and Two as it did in Districts Four and Three.
However, at the time of the discovery, ballots had already been mailed and returned, with voters indicating a preference for Yellowman to represent them on the board.
While there was uncertainty about how to proceed with representation on the school board following the unusual late discovery of the two board members in one district, ultimately the results of the 2022 election stood.
At the November 22 meeting of the San Juan County Commission, members of the commission unanimously approved the written general election results as presented by County Clerk/Auditor Lyman Duncan. Among those results included the re-election of Yellowman to the board.
As a result, Yellowman will represent District Five through the next four years. The election did not end Shumway's tenure as she will sit on the board for the next two years as an at-large member.
Superintendent Ron Nielson said the district has been committed to following state code through the process.
“It’s been a little bit challenging,” said Nielson. “We’ve had to read back up a little bit and make sure our steps are correct so we have appreciated the patience of everyone but I feel very confident that we are following state law and are in a good place.”
Board member Nelson Yellowman also thanked those who attended the swearing-in ceremony, adding, “It is an interesting time, we’re making history”.
The late discovery of the redistricted boundary also impacted district seat Two, which had been represented by Shumway. Following the discovery of an empty district seat two, the school board advertised the open position on the board. In their December meeting, the board interviewed four candidates for the open seat, including MeriAnnell (Nan) Barton, Kari Bake, Kyle Hosler, and Lynette Johnson.
A selection amongst those four candidates was the first item of business for the school board at their January 25 meeting. The board thanked the candidates for their applications and praised the quality of applicants.
The board members privately ranked their choices. Afterwards, Nan Barton was selected to serve on the board. Barton will serve a two-year term with an election for District Two to be held in 2024.
At the meeting, members of the San Juan School Board also made their intentions known to interview for a new school district superintendent in February.
In November, 2022, Nielson announced he would retire in August of this year. At their December meeting, members of the board indicated they would like to see applications from within the district before potentially opening up to more broad search to replace Nielson.
Board president Lori Maughan explained the board made the decision in part because they felt they had qualified individuals within the district.
“In order to see what we had available for us here, with people that are familiar with the district. If we don’t feel like its a fit for us, then we would be able to reach beyond. But when you reach beyond its a lot more of a process to do so and that’s why we had felt like that was the best starting point for us.”
Maughan also mentioned with about eight months until Nielson’s retirement, the district would like to begin training the new superintendent as soon as possible.
Yellowman added his approval of looking in-house for the next superintendent.
“When we’ve gone outside of pool we brought people in from out of state and I think it was a loss for all of us. We paid for their travel, accommodations and so forth, I just don’t want to go down that route again because that didn’t work out with the individual that was selected to be our superintendent (before Nielson). But I’m happy with the applicants.”
At their January 25 meeting, members of the board were informed that after six weeks of advertisement of the position, the district has received four in-house application for superintendent.
While the four applicants were not named, members of the board did see their applications and indicated they felt the application pool was strong enough for the board to hold interviews ahead of their February 8 meeting.
Also at the meeting, members of the board passed a resolution directing administrative staff to move forward with four capital improvement projects identified by district administration, including safety remodels at certain school entrances, a new transportation bay for district buses, update to school keys, and a new Blanding Elementary School.
District business administrator Tyrel Pemberton presented the four capital improvement items, including the safety entrances.
The project to improve safety at entryways at Monticello and San Juan high schools, as well as Albert R. Lyman Middle School and Montezuma Creek Elementary has a $5 million estimated price tag.
Pemperton reports the state plans to fund $3.3 million of the project. San Juan is among 13 districts qualified to apply for $50 million in funds from the state for capital projects.
While the district submitted three proposals for funding, the State Board of Education indicated they will likely award the safety entrance remodels at $3.3 million, with the district covering the remaining $1.7 million with local funds.
Nielson reports that the district learned quite a bit from the state’s award of the $50 million in funds. With talk of the legislature refilling and even expanding the fund, the district is eager to have competitive applications for those state dollars.
“As we looked at some of the ways we would have been more competitive, being shovel ready would have been a very high priority. If we had already had a plan designed and drawn up, we arre ready to go that would have readily helped us.”
As a result, another item on the capital list is moving forward. With an estimated price tag of $40 million, the district is looking at ways to be ready to apply for funds for a new Blanding Elementary School.
While the district had discussed the idea for several months of using $80,000 to evaluate the current Blanding Elementary building to see if a remodel is possible, Pemberton said the district will instead move forward with a new school and use funds to identify a location and begin work on architectural design in order to be ready to move forward with the project.
Another project approved is the continued work of the $2.5 million upgrade to the district transportation bays and offices.
The remodel will expand the district service bays. Two bays currently service the 100 buses in the district.
While the district applied for state funding for the upgrade, the district will upgrade the transportation yard using budgeted local funds.
The final project mentioned was using more than $700,000 from the state legislature to improve school safety district wide.
The district has identified using the funds to improve access control, including key management, as the district schools were last re-keyed more than 15 years ago.
During public comment, three Blanding residents also asked that the district prioritize the need of more gym space in Blanding for youth sports.