San Juan School Board moves ahead on planning for new Blanding Elementary School, discusses confidentialty issues, and upholds termination
by David Boyle
Members of the San Juan School board approved plans for capital projects, discussed a letter from administration ,and upheld a ruling regarding the termination of employment of a teacher at their latest meeting.
During their April 5 meeting, members of the board approved administration to move forward with several capital projects outlined by Business Administrator Tyrel Pemberton.
As part of that conversation, the board approved staff to move forward with Big D/Kitchell Joint Venture (BDK) to provide construction project management services for the construction of a new Blanding Elementary School.
The board received a letter from the Ogden (UT) School District outlining their satisfaction working with BDK for a four-building project in the Ogden District. Across the four schools built, the district and company reported an estimated savings of $13 million.
BDK estimates the new Elementary school will cost $46 million, with the company being paid three percent of the total cost, for an estimated $47.7 million price tag for the new school.
District staff recommended moving forward with plans for the new Elementary school in order for the district to be prepared to apply for available state funds. Applications for the funds are due in November of this year.
Other capital projects prioritized by the district includes remodeling entryways at Montezuma Creek Elementary, ARL Middle, San Juan High, and Monticello High schools. The district received $3.3 million from the state board of education to help complete that project.
Members of the board also discussed a letter from several principals in the district expressing concern about how the board can maintain trust and confidentiality during difficult closed sessions.
The letter followed a lively February meeting of the board where members of the public weighed in on a personnel recommendation by staff. The letter expressed concern by some district administrators concerning confidentiality and asked if building administrators will be supported if public opinion differs from submitted evidence.
Superintendent Ron Nielson said he was not involved in writing the letter, but he did offer advice to the board, including recommending clear and thorough communication with the board and administrators during sessions that are closed to discuss personnel.
“It’s critical that the board of education utilizes the opportunity to get as much information as you need to feel confident in your decision,” said Nielson.
“Administrators are hired and trained and in the same boat as the board members in that they have very tough decisions.”
Nielson added that while public input is a role in those conversations, the public is not privy to information shared in closed sessions.
Board member Nelson Yellowman commented on the importance of keeping the integrity of the board on confidential matters.
“For one, I am very very careful because of the integrity of this board and the school district we’d be liable if we were to go off hearsay stuff,” said Yellowman.
“I am at that stage where I need to be really careful too. From day one I didn’t know every little detail of the situation. I hear the same thing, the other group of family’s individuals in February’s meeting, pressing, pressing to overturn, to make changes.
“That is what is probably the hardest and toughest things that I have to uphold as a board member and once that integrity is broken we are weak. As long as we are bound by the state statutes and go by those, I think we are that much stronger.
“That said moving forward I’d like to continue to keep the confidentiality, personnel issues as tight as we can keep them. This particular case I’m talking about I’m not sure how many months it has been now, but yeah It takes a lot of patience.
“I had a lot of patience to wait and see what the outcome is, regardless of how much pressure I’m getting. So I stand by that because I took that oath I want to hold the integrity of this board for the employees, for the students, for everyone.”
After a thorough conversation, School Board President Lori Maughan recommended the writers of the letter share any suggestions to the board.
Shumway asked if the administrators had any specific examples of breach of confidentiality to be shared with the board.
In another matter, members of the San Juan School Board unanimously approved and adopted the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of an impartial hearing officer and upheld the termination of employment of Victoria Yazzie at their April 5 meeting.
The school district has been unable to provide details on the decision to uphold the termination of employment for the former Monument Valley High Heritage Language and Culture teacher, noting that with all personnel issues employees are afforded rights including confidentiality.
Appeals processes exist for employees who believe they were wrongfully terminated to have their case reviewed by an independent hearing officer.
That confidentiality is provided for hearings and appeals, including one conducted by the independent hearing officer. In fact, discussing personnel issues is one of only three reasons that Utah elected boards can enter closed session.
Following an independent hearing, members of the board voted 6-0 to approve and adopt the recommendation to uphold the termination of employment.
While the district has been unable to comment on the personnel issue, and details remain scarce, comments shared in public meetings and online by other parties have suggested the decision was related to an incident during a field trip in the spring of 2022.
The decision to terminate Dr. Yazzie’s employment has not been without input from the Monument Valley High community. Members of the school board received a petition asking Yazzie be retained, with 80 students’ signatures.
Additionally, over 40 students participated in a walkout protest on a snowy school day on March 21. The question of Dr. Yazzie’s employment was also subject to a special Oljato Chapter meeting on April 2, with over 55 community members joining in on the call.
Speaking to the school board during public comment of the April 5 meeting was Dr. Victoria Yazzie who expressed that parents have issues and concerns at the school.
“We want those issues to be addressed and to have our kids have their voice heard, not to be ignored,” said Yazzie.
“I put on my comment card to have a response as you as leaders back to us parents. I hope you can give the time to where we as adults we tell our students to communicate with each other and tell each other both sides of the story, and not rely on one side of the story.
“So I hope you really consider the heartfelt stories of the students, and also my situation as well.”
A total of 11 additional verbal and written comments were shared in support of Dr. Yazzie at the school board meeting. Among them was a junior at Monument Valley High who had taken classes from Dr. Yazzie last year.
“We feel free to express ourselves, our culture and language. Now we don’t have another teacher,” explained the student.
“I feel my Navajo language is being stripped from me. We need someone strong with love in their heart to be our Heritage Language teacher in Monument Valley High School.
“Dr. Yazzie is certified and has a PhD. She is more than capable to be our teacher again and that’s all we want.”
While the district has not provided specific responses to the issue, Superintendent Ron Nielson sent out two letters to the Monument Valley community on April 2. One letter addressed district policies regarding student walkouts, while the other letter addressed statements made regarding Heritage programs and efforts to hire local native teachers.
Nielson emphasized the district commitment to the Heritage program, including building new hogans in Bluff and Montezuma in the past three years.
“We committed funding to hire a curriculum specialist to review and improve our Heritage curriculum K-12,” wrote Nielson.
“Ms. Brenda Whitehorse and Ms. Lorissa Jackson are working diligently to ensure our students have a grade-appropriate and aligned curriculum in our Heritage classes. In recent years, we continued our commitment to host heritage and language contests and support our students in participating in them. We continue to send our Native student leaders to leadership conferences in both Phoenix, Arizona, and Washington, DC.”
Nielson also wrote about the district efforts to hire local native teachers, administrators, and staff members, noting that Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary teacher Christine Rock is the district Teacher of the Year.
“In recent years, we have seen our number of Native staff members across the district increase,” writes Nielson.
“This is an exciting and meaningful change. Still, we are not in a place where we have enough Native applicants who are appropriately licensed and qualified to fill all positions.
“This results in many Non-Native applicants being hired and working in our schools, and I want to emphatically express appreciation to them for being eager to relocate and willing to commit to making a positive difference in the lives of our students.
“Without them, our schools in Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek would be greatly understaffed which would result in fewer programs and class options for our students.
“I hope our applicant pool continues to see more and more qualified Native applicants, but at the present time, I would caution anyone from sending a message that would devalue our present Non-Native staff members who are professionally and diligently serving our students Native and non-Native alike.”
At the special Oljato chapter meeting on April 2, elected leaders in the chapter were asked to consider seven resolutions. Among the resolution requests was a reinstatement of Dr. Yazzie, an audit of the school, and the removal of administrators at the high school and district.
During the two-hour meeting, members of the community weighed-in on the issue, including Oljato Chapter Vice President Jean Holiday, who offered her support of the children and parents who expressed concerns regarding the district.
“Because in the school system they’re the stakeholder,” said Holiday. “Those administrators at Monument Valley High School should know that we as the parents, the children, stakeholders, we’re the boss of them. Because they’re not going to have a job if it weren’t for our kids.”
Also speaking at the meeting was community member Don Mose III. The local Utah State University educator asked the community to address the issues in harmony.
“We do have very supportive staff here that work in our school district. The fact that we can as a community can say we don’t like something and say we want to remove certain people from certain offices it’s kind of scary because I don’t want to be criticized for my take on how I educate my students,” said Mose.
“I want my students to be able to express their concerns to me but I want them to go about it civilly and to be able to express their concern, and do it in a manner that would constitute a change.”
Navajo Nation Council delegate Herman Daniels Jr. shared that discussions with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice revealed that those proposed seven resolutions would not be legally binding, and recommended passing concerns on to the area’s elected school board member Nelson Yellowman.
Elected chapter leaders also noted the case could be recommended to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. The commission investigates claims of discrimination against Navajo citizens and recommends actions to the commission if staff finds a claim to be discriminatory.
Chapter officials did not approve the seven proposed resolutions but did vote to refer the concerns to Yellowman and work with the human rights commission.
At the special chapter meeting, Yellowman thanked the community for their input and added he’d bring those concerns to the school board.
“Again there’s a lot of confidentiality in this issue. We all need to be careful so with that said I want to acknowledge I have heard everything today again as I have been hearing it from the past, I appreciate it.”