Road issues continue to vex San Juan County
San Juan County (and many of the nearly 3,000 students in the San Juan School District) are left holding the bag after the federal government decreased funding for the maintenance of bus routes on the Navajo Nation.
As a result, a difficult situation is becoming even more unmanageable as road maintenance crews fall farther behind an overwhelming schedule.
The result of the transportation challenges strike to the very heart of the education effort. Missed school days are a key indicator of a challenge for struggling students.
In the past school year, students in some areas missed more than ten days of school due to inaccessible roads.
San Juan County helped lead an effort to restore the only federally funded program to improve the Navajo Nation’s inadequate school bus routes, most of which are neglected dirt roads.
In recent months, an attempt failed to include San Juan County roads in a transportation bill in the US Congress.
Though the Federal Government once again underserved Navajo students by excluding the provision for the school bus routes in the next federal transportation law, San Juan County is determined to solve the problem.
For the past two decades, San Juan County has been the first and only county in the country to step into the boots of the federal government to provide transportation and other services to the tribal community.
Previously, San Juan County received $500,000 a year to fund Navajo roads, but now only receives $90,000. Since 2005, San Juan County has spent $11,056,628 of its own funds on Navajo school bus routes.
A total of 258 of the 627 miles of road within the Utah section of the Navajo Nation are school bus routes. Of those, 87 of the bus route miles are dirt road that on the best of days can make the school trip a two-hour ordeal, while on the worst of days can make it impossible.
Just to upgrade the 87 miles to gravel is estimated to cost $18 million. Because of the lack of funds, last year students within the Navajo Utah strip missed approximately six days of school and those along isolated and poorly maintained sections missed even more.
One example of the problem is in the Yellow Rock Point area south of Montezuma Creek
At the December 8 meeting of the San Juan School Board, the parents of children in the area asked the school board to continue school bus service to their homes.
Because of deteriorating road conditions in Yellow Rock Point, the district plans to reroute the school busses that travel along the isolated road. The busses provide transportation for students to attend Montezuma Creek Elementary School and Whitehorse High School.
The school district said it is a safety hazard for the busses to travel the road, which becomes bogged down during storms. The district will reimburse family members for transporting the students to central areas.
County and school district officials share concern about the issue. The key is finding a safe and reliable way to ensure that students can get to school.
“Navajo students have the same constitutional right to get to school as all other students in Utah,” said San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally. “These rights can’t be a reality without the building and maintenance of safe roads.”
Last August, the San Juan County Commission initiated a historic meeting and joined forces with Utah Navajo Chapter officials to secure the help of Utah Governor Gary Herbert to restore the Indian School Bus Routes Maintenance Program.
The Governor sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to be included in the next federal transportation law.
“The state of Utah, the Navajo Nation, and local county officials are doing all we can to address transportation needs with limited resources,” the Governor wrote.