School district will work to bring a better balance of diversity

The San Juan School District is forming a plan to have the school district administration match the student populations that it serves.

At the January 20 meeting of the San Juan School Board, the board unanimously passed a resolution to work out details of a plan to create an administrative hiring pool that includes more Native American applicants.

While Native American students make up about 50 percent of the San Juan School District student population, only 11 percent of the 27 district administrators are Native American. Similarly, just 35 percent of teachers in the district are not Anglo.

School Superintendent Ron Nielson said the district has been excited to see the number of Native American teachers increase through programs such as a rural teacher grant at Utah State University Blanding. Nielson said of the seven graduates from the latest program, the district hired four to teach.

In addition to growth in minority teaching numbers, the district is now working to bring a better balance of diversity to the administrative ranks.

At the meeting, Nielson pointed out benefits of having Native American administrators, including improved relationships with community and students, improved diversity in the staff and teacher ranks, and improved relations with the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

The proposal would select two teachers a year from the district to be financially supported for up to three years in a program to obtain an administrator’s license.

The agreement would require successful candidates to work three to five additional years for the district or repay the investment on a prorated scale.

Initiating the plan over a proposed seven years would result in an administrator’s license for ten qualified non-Anglo teachers.

The initial high-cost estimate for the program would be $9,800 per year for each individual. So the total cost would be $98,000 to create the pool of ten qualified administrators.

Neilson said the cost burden to the district would likely be one-third of the total, as Utah State University Blanding has expressed interest in participating by providing scholarships to the participants.

Additionally, Nielson said that if the plan is approved, the district would reach out to other potential partners, such as the Utah Navajo Trust and possible other contributors.

Board member Merri Shumway said she is supportive of hiring those who have Native American language skills and an understanding of the culture, but has reservations about the emphasis on people of color.

“I don’t like looking at color. It’s against my nature to look at color,” said Shumway. “But I do get culture; I think the culture is important.”

Shumway mentioned the contributions of dedicated Anglo educators throughout the district.

Nielson said he didn’t want to imply the district has not received tremendous and successful work from hundreds of non-Native employees.

“The research is very clear [that non-Native employees] had to bridge a little broader gap in connectivity, in immediate acceptance than if they had been Native,” said Nielson. “When you put someone in that already bridges that gap naturally, perfectly because there is no gap, you start a little ahead, [although] you still have to have a quality and successful person.”

Board members Nelson Yellowman and Lucille Cody shared comments in support of the creation of a committee to develop a formal plan. All five board members later passed a resolution to create a committee.

At the January 20 meeting, the board also approved their annual application for Impact Aid.

Impact Aid funds are federal funds that assist school districts that have lost property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt Federal property or that have experienced increased expenditures due to the enrollment of federally-connected children, including children living on Native American Lands.

As a result, the school district receives an average of $6 million a year from federal Impact Aid. The district allocates $4 million for the general fund and $2 million for the capital fund.

The district reports the funds help pay for Heritage Language classes and teacher housing in the river region, as well as pre-school and full-day kindergarten, among other programs and new buildings.

The board also extended the deadline for applications for a new business administrator through March 5.

The board heard public comment from two mothers of students who expressed opposition to school mask mandates and the bi-weekly COVID-19 testing of students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities.

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