San Juan County School District raises eyebrows with vote opposing Bears Ears

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In a move that has sparked controversy, the board for the San Juan County School District in Southeast Utah passed a resolution in May opposing the new Bears Ears National Monument and urging President Trump to rescind the designation made during the last days of the Obama presidency in 2016.

School board vice president Merri Shumway told the Free Press that her decision to bring the issue to the board was motivated by responsibility for the financial future of the school district. “The school board sets the budget and the budget funds education,” she said. “Teachers, custodians, bus divers, cafeteria staff – all of our employees love their jobs and none work for free. Property taxes and income fund our schools.”

The final draft of the May 9 resolution states that the designation of 1.35 million acres as a national monument will forever remove the opportunity for mineral extraction on those lands and will adversely impact the tax base in the county.

San Juan County is in one of the most geographically remote places within the Colorado Plateau, sharing its southern border with Arizona. It is the largest county in Utah and the second-largest in the United States, with approximately 5.2 million acres, much of it configured with deep canyon landforms.

The school district celebrates the unique appeal of the location on their website, linking visitors to 11 state and federal public land destinations, including Monument Valley Tribal Park, Lake Powell, Four Corners Monument, Rainbow Bridge, and others, claiming, “Adventure Lives Here!”

Bears Ears National Monument is not listed among those.

Riches evaporate

In the 1950s and ’60s, Shumway explained, “we were the second-richest county in Utah and now, after all the federal designations, we are the poorest due to the heavy federal presence.”

The school district includes more than 3,000 students in 12 schools sprinkled throughout 8,000 square acres. The Navajo Nation reservation makes up 23 percent of the land base, while 69 percent of the land is controlled by the federal and state governments. Only 8 percent of the county is privately owned.

“That is the only land we can tax,” Shumway said. “If more is taken from us, as in the Bears Ears 1.35-million-acre monument designation, how can we fund our schools?”

But prior to the designation, the land within the Bears Ears monument was already owned and managed by the federal government, and held in trust for all Americans. The national-monument designation did nothing to change ownership and it continues to allow a broad range of historical activities and public access. It also allows access for current permitted livestock-grazing.

According to Kyle Hosler, the school district’s business administrator, tax revenues from oil and gas development, mining of uranium, vanadium, sand and gravel, and other natural resources combine with property taxes to fill the education coffers with 85 percent of the $41 million annual budget. The rest of the budget is funded through federal and state grants and programs.

Designations restricting use of federal lands could limit future extractive development and, thus, funds to the school district.

“We’re blessed. Our district does an excellent job with limited resources,” Hosler explained. “We try not to tax the locals. We don’t want to oppress our people in order to sustain and continue our education district.”

A multiple-use policy creates future development potential and employment possibilities close to home, said Shumway, who has served as a school-board member for 16 years. “It funds education and all the other services the county provides.”

Now in her mid-50s, she is looking forward to the fall term, when her first grandchild enrolls in the district that educated her children.

“I have lived all but seven years of my life here, and I am confident that the people of the county absolutely understand where they live.” She remembers her father bringing people in planes, cars, and boats to tour and hike and “see our amazing area.”

“Everyone I know wants to protect the land and the multiple-use aspect so that we are able to live here. We are the caretakers of the land.

“When I heard it was sacred to the Indians, I never heard that before [the push to make Bears Ears a monument]. I think it’s sacred to everyone. It was created for us to use. We can’t live without it. It doesn’t matter what others say. It’s my responsibility to look to the future.”

Outraged

But native people have lived in the region for millennia. The rich archaeological record in the Bears Ears monument is estimated to hold over 100,000 sites. Obama’s decision to recognize the area’s cultural resources also supported the effort to bring five tribes to the comanagement process with the federal

government. It was the first time in U.S. history when native people were recognized for their implicit understanding of the sacred land.

“Tell President Obama, ‘Thank you,’ please. He kept his word to us, “said Utah Diné Bikeyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes to the Free Press when he heard of the monument declaration in December 2016.

Grayeyes is outraged by the school district’s resolution. In an email, he said it is a scheme, that revenue streams to the school district are not affected by “federal matters related to the land designation. Period!”

An earlier resolution

Individual school-board members began cobbling together a resolution opposing Bears Ears late last summer, well before other members were aware of it. The action was unknown to board member Nelson Yellowman, a Navajo who represents Halchita, Oljeto and Navajo Mountain, one of two Navajo school districts in San Juan County.

Shumway introduced the resolution at the annual Utah School Board Association Delegate Assembly in August, requesting the state association officially oppose the Bears Ears monument months before it was even proclaimed. The resolution passed by the required two-thirds majority vote, with 47 of 51 delegates in favor, and only two dissenting districts, she said. The delegates also voted to forward the resolution to local, state and national officials.

Yellowman confronted Shumway on the issue in September at a regularly scheduled board meeting, saying it was inappropriate to bring the question to a state group when it hadn’t been discussed by the local school-district board.

According to the minutes, Debbie Christiansen, board president at that time, felt it was necessary the issue be put on the agenda at the September meeting because it was “a pressing topic throughout the county.” Her intention was to discuss and share information regarding the proposed monument. The minutes report that Christiansen’s main concern was the “property tax money the district stands to lose in the wake of the monument, which would drastically change the financial outlook for school funding.”

Shumway supported this opinion and the hope that constituents would see the potential financial ramifications of the monument designation.

“I told them during the [school board] work session,” says Yellowman, “that it is deeper than the [federal] land designations. This issue is about my heritage, my people, the past ancestral cultures and native people finally getting an opportunity to sit at the table in a co-management capacity.”

Yellowman, who lives in Monument Valley, expressed his frustration regarding the board participation in political issues. Minutes of the meeting state that he felt it was distracting and unnecessary.

Elsie Dee, who represents the other Navajo community, Montezuma Creek, on the board, voiced her support for Yellowman and the board remained divided on whether to participate or make a statement on the Bears Ears monument status. No official comment was made by the school board at that time other than acknowledging a neutral standing.

A sole dissenting vote

In May, President Trump issued an executive order calling for a review of certain monument designations done in the past two decades. Newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke set the review process in motion early in May during a tour of Bears Ears in the company of the Utah congressional delegation.

The school-district resolution to oppose the monument and request that Trump rescind it appeared on the board agenda for the second time on May 9, during the time of Zinke’s tour.

“Even though agendas change before meetings and sometimes during meetings, it felt sudden,” said Yellowman. “I believe this was done because Secretary Zinke was visiting here with the Utah delegation. I felt there was not enough public notice to allow public comment on the resolution. It was in rough-draft form at first and I disagreed that minor changes to the language were being cleaned up in a board meeting. It should be presented in its final form.”

A final draft was presented at the meeting with minor changes in the language. It passed 4-1. Yellowman was the sole dissenting vote.

“It is a political tactic to say the land will provide property-tax revenue when in fact I’ve seen no development in 50 years there in the monument area and I grew up in Blanding, close to the region,” he said. “If those who oppose it think it will produce revenue, why didn’t they do something about it 50 years ago? It’s always been federal land.”

“This is sad news for Oljato and Utah Diné community,” said James Adakai, president of the Navajo Nation Oljeto Chapter in Monument Valley. “Today, San Juan County, Utah, remains in the dark ages of modern U.S. history. I thank and commend Nelson [Yellowman] for his leadership and commitment toward advancing the interests of the Diné community.”

Adakai was appointed by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye to the Tribal Bears Ears Commission as the prime representative for the Navajo Nation. Since then he has been serving as the regional Navajo anchor at Bears Ears, he said.

“I talked to [now retired] Superintendent Ed Lyman about the issue. He attended two chapter meetings where I explained that he must not allow the school district to use our children for political reasons, or our school-district resources to advance the county’s far-right conservative policies and agenda. I am just asking the school district to do their job, to educate our children, provide quality education in tribal communities and increase achievement level or test scores of the students. Don’t spend school resources, public funds and grants to support political activity.”

Federal impact

The presence of Native American students living in the county who attend district schools increases federal funding opportunities, such as Federal Impact Aid.

The program is designed to offset the loss of property tax from federal reservation land or military bases. The amount varies slightly every year, but it is significant in San Juan County because the native students make up 53 percent of the student body, and most of them live in the large reservation area running east to west across the southern part of the county.

If military bases were located in the county, explained Yellowman, that would be another reason for the funding, but the only reason the extra revenue flows from the federal government to the school’s budget is that native students are enrolled in the schools.

According to Hosler, the Impact Aid revenue today accounts for nearly $5 million of the $41 million annual budget. In the past it has been as high as $8 million.

But Shumway doesn’t agree that federal programs always benefit the county. Because the reservation is federal land, she said, “not owned by the Indian people, we have become so poor that every student in kindergarten through high school is eligible for the federal lunch program. That means 10 of 21 weekly meals — breakfast and lunch — are served to the students at the school – funded by the federal government. Since the Bears Ears designation, it feels like the federal government is saying, ‘Don’t worry about working, because we will feed you.’ ”

Shumway linked the influence of the federal government to test scores in the district. She said the schools have used the same curriculum throughout the district for 20 years, so curriculum differences aren’t the reason for test-score differences. “The federal presence has created poverty in those [communities] closest to the federal presence and low test scores,” she said. “By their [federal government] control over the land, they control the opportunity.

“The lowest test scores are found where the federal government’s presence is the heaviest. The farther north you go in the county, the higher the test scores rise. All students in the county should have opportunity for employment and the opportunity to take care of themselves. Students in San Juan County shouldn’t be suppressed because we live in the most beautiful place in the country.”

‘Dirty politics’

Adakai of the Oljeto Chapter is an outspoken critic of the board’s actions. He reminded the school board in a statement posted on social media that the majority of Utah [Navajo] chapter communities support the Bears Ears National Monument.

“Leave the politics of Bears Ears to the parents and tribal governments,” he said. “Our children are innocent and their minds are fragile and the school should not inject dirty politics into their delicate minds. It is illegal for the school system to engage or instill politics into the young minds of our kids without parental permission. School grants and funding are in jeopardy because the funds should not be used for political activities in the school system.”

In an email to the Free Press, Adakai wrote, “The Blanding and Monticello Bilagaana [Anglo] anti-monument mobs are running the school district, the county, Utah Navajo Trust Fund, and the Utah Navajo Health System. To propagandize our little kids and use our resources against Bears Ears Monument is illegal.”

The Free Press asked the Utah Department of Education for information about the resolution’s legality. The office was unable to respond as of press time.

“This misuse of school governance is another example of conservative overreach, disrespecting the majority Native interests, values and beliefs in the county,” Adakai added. “We natives do not appreciate relentless, disrespectful, disengaging, political attacks such as this resolution.”

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From June 2017.