San Juan School Board reviews district maps, discusses 2022-23 calendar and audit report

School board redistricting, the 2022-23 school calendar, and an audit report were all part of the San Juan School Board discussion at their December 8 meeting.

Members of the school board reviewed the two proposed school board maps being considered by the San Juan County Commission as a part of 2021 redistricting efforts in the county.

County Administrator Mack McDonald presented the two current options to the school board and answered questions ahead of the December 21 commission meeting, where the commission is expected to approve the maps for the school board and commission voting districts.

Redistricting occurs every ten years following the US Census. Redistricting is when voting district boundaries are redrawn to make sure populations are equally represented in legislative bodies.

The San Juan County Commission is tasked with redistricting the San Juan School Board and the County Commission boundaries.

San Juan County most recently redistricted in 2018 under the direction of Federal Judge Robert Shelby as the result of a voting rights lawsuit filed against San Juan County by the Navajo Nation.

One set of maps presented at the meeting was prepared by Bill Cooper, the county’s hired redistricting expert. Cooper has more than 35 years of experience and served as an expert for the Navajo Nation in the 2018 lawsuit against the county.

McDonald explained that the Option B map drawn by Cooper is a least change map, intended to keep the district boundaries similar to the map drawn in 2018 following the Navajo Nation lawsuit against the county.

“We’re trying to make the minimal amounts of adjustments as possible,” said McDonald. “Keeping within the master mapper that the judge used at the federal level and their lines of thought in how they created these districts originally, trying to keep within those same thought process, as well as meeting the federal law on fair districts and fair elections.”

The Option B map keeps all five incumbents in their same district, something that the other school board map does not. 

The other completed school board map for consideration was prepared by the Navajo Nation Office of Human Rights Commission. The Navajo Nation map more perfectly balances populations among the five voting districts.

To perfectly balance the school board districts, each district would have 2,798 people. The Navajo Nation plan has the exact number of 2,798 people in four of the districts, with one district off by one person.

The Option B plan has a small deviation but is still larger than the perfect deviation created by the Navajo Nation office. The smallest district has 2,768 people, while the largest has 2,813.

McDonald notes that perfectly balancing that population impacts the seating of incumbents.

“Because they’re trying to get more of a total balance of all of the districts, they recognize their district plan does shift and place school board members in different districts,” said McDonald. “Their concept is more trying to balance population rather than create maps and districts based on incumbents.”

While the two maps balanced the population equally among the five district seats, members of the school board voiced concern that some of the district boundaries are divided among multiple schools in the district.

School board members Merri Shumway and Lori Maughan both raised concerns about representation of residents who live in Eastland and Ucolo. While students in those areas attend schools in Monticello, they are represented on the school board by Lucille Cody. Most of the students in Cody’s district attend schools in Montezuma Creek.

Cody and board member Nelson Yellowman expressed a similar concern in November when an earlier version of a map placed some families in Montezuma Creek in a district represented by Steve Black, who also represents Bluff as well as parts of Blanding.

Shumway asked that the county inquire of Cooper if the districts could more closely align so families are represented within communities that feed into the same schools.

McDonald said they would ask, but as with other proposals, if Cooper’s opinion is that the proposal would result in a lawsuit, the county will disregard that map option.

McDonald said if Cooper believes a revised map is workable, the district will work on a map that tries to align communities with district boundaries. 

While Superintendent Ron Nielson recognized the fairness in having communities represented together, he added that the principle of one person, one vote is the driving criteria of the special master who drew the maps in 2018.

“They were implying that that criteria is what would be driven in a court battle,” said Nielson.

Nielson added his support of work to propose a new map, but also asked for a recommendation from the board.

“In the event it comes back to these two maps, what do we prefer?” Asked Nielson. “Because I expect it’ll come back to these two maps that are being presented.”

While taking an action on school board redistricting maps was on the agenda, no motion was made in connection to the item.

The board also tabled a decision to approve the 2022-2023 school year calendar in order to explore lining up the district fall break with the general deer hunt.

In presenting the proposed calendars, Nielson explained that the district is recommending a change that would provide teachers with two additional development days during the school year.

The proposal would make college and career readiness days in the district one-half day of instruction, which would open up two days for teacher development.

The proposal would effectively lengthen the student breaks between the first and second quarters, as well as the winter break, each by one day. The teachers would come back one day before students for development training.

The proposal would have teachers return to school on January 2, 2023, with students coming back the next day.

District staff gave the board options for when to have the fall break. One proposal includes Fall break on Friday, October 14, with the teacher day on Monday, October 17. Another option is Fall break on Monday, October 17, with the teacher day on Tuesday, October 18.

The proposals would have the first quarter of the year lasting 40 or 41 days, with the second lasting 42 or 43 days.

Aligning the school break with the deer hunt would lengthen the first quarter to 45 or 46 days and shorten the second quarter to 39 or 38 days.

The board moved to table approving the calendar for another month in order to explore the possibility of starting the fall break a week later.

Members of the school board also received a report on the School Land Trust Program. The state program distributed $88.8 million to Utah schools in 2021, at an average of $133.21 per student.

Participating in the program requires schools to provide reports on how the money is spent, with specific academic goals identified related to the spending.

The board approved the final report for the year, noting that many goals set were not reached, in part due to the impacts of COVID-19. 

The board also heard a report from the Bilingual/Heritage Department director Brenda Whitehorse.

Whitehorse reports the district held a Virtual Heritage Language Conference, and also had celebrations across schools in the district during Native American Heritage month in November.

Whitehorse shared an update on ongoing projects, including the construction of a hogan at Bluff Elementary School, with a hogan planned for Montezuma Creek Elementary School as well.

Whitehorse reported on the continuing efforts to develop curriculum for the department so that as the district gets new teachers, they are able to build off the work of current instructors.

ARL Middle school employee Cambria Palmer and district employee Celeste Dayish were each recognized with San Juan Sweet Job awards.

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