District talks future of the board, petition from Whitehorse students to end masks
by David Boyle
At their latest meeting members of the San Juan School Board received a report from district staff on the future of the board following a recent discovery about two board members being redistricted into the same seat.
At the board’s November 9 meeting school superintendent, Ron Nielson shared a timeline of the issue, starting with school board redistricting maps approved by the San Juan County Commission in January of 2022.
Every ten years the US census counts every resident in the US. Those figures are then used at state and county levels to evenly appoint the number of voters in districts represented by elected officials.
In San Juan County the county commission and the San Juan school board boundaries are redrawn and approved by the commission.
Those boundaries are sometimes drawn outside of the ten-year period. For example in 2018 the boundaries were redrawn following a lawsuit won by the Navajo Nation against San Juan County that resulted in a ruling that the previous boundaries discriminated against Native American voters in the county.
In January 2022 the county commission finalized the once-a-decade realignment adopting new maps for the county commission and the school board.
Nielson shared that the district had taken a stance favoring a map presented to the commission with over 30 written comments in support.
The commission ultimately voted to adopt a map proposed by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission which saw some incumbent candidates placed in the same district, although the number of incumbents placed in a new district was not discovered by the district or county until October.
The discovery that board members Merri Shumway and Nelson Yellowman had both been placed in the newly adopted boundaries for district 5 was not known until October when Shumway opened her ballot to see she was in the district 5 voting district.
As a result, the school district is preparing to follow its reading of Utah state code to treat the situation similar to how the board has treated the district four seat, with board members with remaining tenure finishing out their terms before an election.
In that situation, board member Steve Black will fill the remaining two years of his term through 2024, while board member Lucille Cody’s term will end in 2022. In 2024 Black, Cody, or any other eligible candidate living in the district will be able to run to represent the seat.
With two incumbent board members in district four, there was an election for the open district three on November 8. Voters selected Colleen Benally to represent the district on the board.
While the school district has recently dealt with multiple board members being placed in the same school board seat, the situation in district five and district two has been complicated by the fact that the discovery was made after ballots had been mailed out.
Superintendent Ron Nielson said the school district researched how to move forward with the situation.
“Mr. Yellowman’s name was already on ballots. He had already disclosed to run again to be re-elected his name was on ballots. So in this event, the (Utah Attorney General’s) office was contacted. I myself contacted the AG’s office, the county I know worked with the AG’s office to determine if for any reason state law should not be followed. All of the information I got back from the AG’s office was that there’s no reason that state law would not be followed. State law should be followed. We knew from district four what state law outlined. It outlined that if there were two incumbents in the same district after redistricting if one of those incumbents’ tenure ended they were removed and the incumbent that then had tenure left would represent the district.”
While district staff and the majority of the school board agreed on how to move forward with the situation. There is still some uncertainty about what will happen to the district five-seat.
Yellowman has served on the board representing Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain since 2006. Yellowman ran uncontested for election on the November 8 ballot receiving 837 ballots cast in his favor.
Yellowman is exploring legal avenues to continue to represent residents who have voted for him in the district. While Yellowman abstained on a vote relating to the issue he did provide some brief comments.
“At this point, I feel like the school district does not have the authority to proceed with this. I have retained legal counsel.”
School board president Lori Maughan responded saying that the district has to follow its legal counsel.
Nielson said that counsel will keep the board moving forward with Shumway representing District 5 for two more years, and the board selecting a representative from applicants in district two.
“If in your efforts to seek legal counsel and move things forward legally, if any order comes down through a judge or anything official then yes that could stop–we could be ordered to stop the process and halt that until things play out but that’s what I think it would take.”
Nielson added that the entire situation is awkward and frustrating. Adding that he asked members of the county commission in a public comment why the map adopted was preferred to the one recommended by the hired redistricting expert. Nielson did not receive a response at the meeting nor did he report hearing back from the commission at the school board meeting.
Shumway emphasized the communication that the board did not ask for the map adopted.
“We had no control but we tried very hard to advocate so that people would be represented by a school board member who actually lived in and close to the community as much as you can in an 8,000 square mile school district. So What happened was nothing that this board wanted to happen and we advocated for a different map but we were not successful in that.”
Applications are now being accepted for the open district two seat located in the Blanding area.
Applicants must have lived within District 2 boundaries for at least one year and must not presently be employed by the school district.
Applications available online and at the district office must be submitted by December 2. The school board will conduct interviews of all candidates on December 14 at 6:30 pm.
The district reports the board-selected candidate will be sworn in on January 25, 2023, and serve two years before the seat will be up for an election for a two-year term in November 2024.
At the meeting, the board received a petition signed by 163 students at Whitehorse High School asking for the lifting of requirements to wear facemasks in schools. The district’s October enrollment numbers reported 299 students in grades 7-12 at Whitehorse high with apparently over half the students in the school signing the petition.
The petition was received by principal Kim Schaffer, and read to the San Juan school board, as well as the Navajo Nation and the Health Department of the Navajo Nation.
The petition cited a variety of concerns including the discomfort of masks and increased waste from disposable masks. The petition reads in part:
“Scholars also see no point in wearing masks at school when they don’t see anybody wearing a mask in public areas. When there is a home game in any sport the opposing team doesn’t wear their masks.”
In the October board meeting following three public comments against mask mandates in Montezuma Creek schools, Nielson informed the board that the district had been following Navajo Nation Health Guidelines since the beginning of the pandemic.
Adding that the district signed an assurance at the beginning of the year that they would follow Navajo Nation health guidelines but that the board could change that if they wanted.
The board did not make a motion at their November meeting regarding mask mandates in schools under the direction of the Navajo Nation Health Department.
At the meeting members of the school board also approved a $250,000 contract to sell one acre of land in Monument Valley to the Utah Food Bank.
The Utah Food Bank approached the school district after the organization had secured funds from the Utah State Legislature to build a warehouse in Blanding and distribution facilities in Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley.
While the Utah Food Bank has secured land in Montezuma Creek and Blanding, the district property was the only option to purchase in Monument Valley in the timeline provided as the funds must be spent by June 2023.
The site of the acre is on the southern end of the district property near the Utah Navajo Health System clinic along highway 163.