Dozens of people gathered in a small Navajo Nation community Tuesday to encourage the tribe's education department to take over a school in financial ruin.
Nearly one-third of the employees at Leupp Schools Inc. will lose their jobs Friday as part of a reorganization plan.
Tribal officials say the school system has been financially unstable for years, paying out too much in salaries while enrollment declines, posting a deficit of almost $2 million last year, and garnering the attention of the Internal Revenue Service by failing to pay more than $100,000 in employee taxes.
The tribe's Dine Department of Education is working with the local school board in Leupp and the principal to reorganize the school and avert a shutdown. Without the plan, the school that operates with federal funding was facing closure this month.
Instead, 21 people, including teachers, and maintenance and security staff, are being laid off. At least two grades will be combined into a single classroom.
"It's a tough situation that we have on our hands here," Tommy Lewis, director of the tribe's education department, said at a public meeting in Leupp.
Henry Moore Jr., school board president, said the panel was unaware of some of the problems. The district is also prohibiting overtime by workers, running fewer buses and cutting travel expenses by members of the board, he said.
"Our financial situation is OK, it's not fantastic," he said. "We'll get by until the end of the year with reducing staff."
Leupp Schools is the only school system in the community of Leupp, about an hour from Flagstaff, that serves students through 12th grade and also has a student dormitory. Schools are a major employer in the area.
Lewis told the crowd of parents, community members and school employees that they had a right to criticize school officials for not looking out for their interests.
He said the local school board and the principal haven't resisted change. If they had, his department could assume control of the school immediately with the blessing of the tribe's Board of Education and the tribe's Department of Justice.
He said he'd do his best to deliver the community's message.
Parents said the problems at Leupp Schools extend beyond finances to include intimidation and nepotism at the school.
"We don't know how long it's going to take to make the corrections," said Lorraine McCabe, a community member. "We can't continue to operate in this fashion because there's no trust anymore."
Katheleen Keams, president of the parent-teacher organization, says her children constantly ask her if their school is closing and she's assessing whether to move them elsewhere. Her husband is on the list of people being laid off Friday from his job as a maintenance technician, which she said will cause hardship for her family.
"Out here, there are no jobs," she said. "The only place he can go to is the cities."
Leupp Schools is one of about 30 schools on the reservation run under contract with the U.S Bureau of Indian Education. Monty Roessel, the agency's director, said he encourages the tribe and contract schools to work together to manage the schools with the BIE in an advisement role.
"This type of collaboration is the least disruptive to employees and builds the capacity of both school and tribe as corrective action is taken," he said.
The Dine Department of Education has taken over three contract schools in the past two years, including the Rock Point Community School where $1.7 million was illegally transferred to an offshore account in an apparent hacking, federal officials said. The Rock Point school board has reassumed control of the school.
The other two schools remain under the tribal government's oversight.