School Board holds Impact Aid hearing, reviews SHARP data at latest board meeting

by David Boyle
News Director
Members of the San Juan School board held a public hearing before approving application for federal impact aid, and received a report on state health and risk prevention survey at their latest meeting.
At their January 24 meeting, members of the San Juan School Board approved the district’s federal impact aid application following a public hearing held at Whitehorse High School.
District business administrator Tyrel Pemberton explained that federal impact aid is designed to assist school districts in the US that have lost property tax revenue due to the presence of tax exempt federal properties. 
With tribal lands in San Juan County being tax exempt, the federal government sends in payment in lieu of property taxes. Those payments are funded on an annual basis meaning the district advocates for those funds to be given year to year.
A breakdown of those funds include $8.75 million in 2023 as ‘basic support payments, with an additional $243,000 for a total of nearly $9 million annually.
Pemberton added that the number makes up a significant portion of the annual budget, also sharing that the district has adopted a practice of the first $4 million of impact aid received will go to general operations, with the next $2 million received going to capital funds, and any other funds going into the building reserve funds.
In presenting the impact aid application Superintendent Christine Fitzgerald addressed two common misconceptions related to impact aid.
The first misconception Fitzgerald addressed was the idea that since the funds are generated by Native American students on Native American lands those funds should be spent in schools on tribal lands.
Fitzgerald explained the funds are provided in lieu of taxes. Just as property taxes throughout the county are used to support education in other parts of the county, so are federal payments used throughout the county.
“Impact aid is the federal government taking on the responsibility of those taxes. So in lieu of taxes the federal government is paying impact aid. So just as our taxes go into that pot, the impact aid goes into that pot to be used for all of our schools.”
The other misconception Fitzgerald addressed is that the school district is at a disadvantage because much of the county doesn’t pay local property tax to support education.
Fitzgerald emphasized those payments from the federal government are in place of local property taxes for the district. A district presentation slide read:
“In fact, when comparing per-pupil comparison, more is received from Impact Aid per pupil than from local property tax. Therefore, San Juan School District does receive a payment of local property tax to support education that fairly represents the entire county”.
During the public hearing related to the federal impact aid application the district heard concerns from several county residents.
Among the comments included a request that the school fees for meals be raised to $15 in order to allow for more funds for students to purchase meals on activities. Other concerns raised were regarding the appearance of the outside of Whitehorse High School. Another safety concern asked that the district to find a way to provide security or work with San Juan County Sheriff’s department to respond to incidents at the schools, as currently they are served by Navajo Nation Police Districts in Shiprock and Kayenta with many Utah residents saying the department is stretched too thin to serve the Utah portion of Navajo Nation.
Following public comment members of the school board approved the district application for federal impact aid.
At the meeting members of the board also heard from the Indian Education Committee (IEC). District Heritage Language Director Brenda Whitehorse introduced members of the committee to the board.
IEC chair Julie Sampson explained the IEC meets monthly to conduct business related to the Johnson O’Malley (JOM) act. The IEC is involved in the planning, approval, implementation and monitoring of the district’s JOM program.
As a supplemental funding program the JOM can be used to cover parental costs for eyeglasses, caps and gowns, college fees and class fees. JOM funds can also be used for lodging, indigenous meals, books, cultural prints, weaving looms, and transportation for educational trips.
In their presentation the IEC reminded those providing monthly applications to be creative and be prepared to make changes in applications to move from denial to acceptance of proposal, with documentation being a key in continuation of JOM and Navajo Nation partnerships.
Members of the board also heard a presentation from Student Services director Trevor Olsen. Olsen outlined celebrations for the department including additional counseling services in schools, increased access to virtual counseling, implementation of the Navajo Wellness Model and the plans for a student Hogan to be built in Blanding.
Olsen also highlighted increased challenges including decreasing funds with increasing needs, as well as limitations for staff space and increased physiological, and safety needs among student populations.
At the meeting members of the board also reviewed the Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) Survey Data.
Project Manager with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services Mary Johnstun, presented the data to the board.
The SHARP survey is conducted every two years. Johnstun reviewed trends in the district, noting that in San Juan County, students are more likely to be experimenting with marijuana or using marijuana regularly than they are to be using alcohol.
Also the district shows the county 6th and 8th graders are using vape devices at a rate that is higher than the state average.
The survey also showed that San Juan County youth perceive less risk in using substances than students across the state. However, the majority of local students also say they believe their parents would not approve of substance use, with parents having conversations with their children at a rate higher in San Juan County than the rest of the state.
The data also showed that San Juan County 6th grade students indicate a higher-than-state suicide ideation ans self-harm, and also notes that students in most grades are more likely than other Utah students to skip school due to feeling unsafe at school or on their way home.
However bullying and cyberbullying rates are lower in San Juan County than most of the state.
Additionally San Juan students say they are more likely to indicate they have plenty of opportunities to be involved in sports, clubs, to feel safe at school and receive praise from their teachers. San Juan school students are also more likely to enjoy school, find education meaningful and important and believe it will benefit them in the future.
At the meeting members of the school board also recognized district staff with the San Juan Sweet Job award. 
Montezuma Creek Elementary School Faculty Nellie Tohtsonie was recognized.
“Heritage language is a central part of a school community and it shows with the amount of parent support during the winter heritage language festival. Nellie goes above and beyond to share the rich cultural heritage and language of our students with the entire school.”
Whitehorse High Paraprofessional Valerie Harvey was also recognized.
“She is friendly, hardworking and professional. She accomplishes so many vital tasks many behind the scenes that significantly impact our positive school climate and growing level of academic urgency.”

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