Navajo president says he’ll OK emergency Head Start funding

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye says he’ll approve funding to shore up the tribe’s Head Start program after a federal judge denied a request to block a funding cut from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tribal lawmakers passed a bill last month to divert $6.3 million from the tribe’s rainy day fund to the troubled Head Start program. Begaye said Friday he’ll sign off on the bill.

“Over the years, we’ve had inconsistent funding for the program, including times when funds are not available at all and we have had to close the doors,” he said in a prepared statement. “The inconsistency has hurt us. Parents want to see consistency for their children. The workforce needs consistency because teachers won’t stay at jobs if the funds are not there.”

The Navajo Nation operates one of the largest tribal Head Start programs in the country but has struggled to maintain it. The federal government has revoked funding over wide-ranging threats to children’s safety at the centers and later restored it, threatened cuts and reduced money as enrollment figures decreased.

Lawmakers responded to the latest need for funding, Tribal Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said, but cannot continue Band-Aid solutions for an executive branch program.

He said the tribe must show progress with enrollment numbers.

“As competitive as those dollars are today, there’s going to be other parties looking to get those dollars that would otherwise have come to the Navajo Nation,” Bates said.

The tribe has received about $23 million annually in recent years to serve 2,105 children, but the Health and Human Services Department cut the grant funding to under $16 million for the fiscal year that started Thursday because of chronic under-enrollment. The approved funding covers 1,433 children.

The tribe sued, alleging it was denied an opportunity to appeal the cut. It sought to preserve the larger amount it previously received by asking a judge to block the funding cut.

U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich in Washington, D.C., ruled against the tribe Wednesday, saying it hasn’t proved it would suffer irreparable harm. The rest of the case is proceeding.

The tribe’s acting assistant superintendent for Head Start, Elvira Bitsoi, wrote in a court affidavit that without the higher funding amount, 672 children will lose access to Head Start services — the difference between what the tribe was funded for in the last fiscal year and this one.

Friedrich said the funded enrollment is consistent with reported enrollment.

“It seems unlikely that there are 672 additional, actual students who would enroll but for HHS’s decision,” she wrote.

The judge also said the tribe routinely fails to spend millions of dollars it’s budgeted annually for Head Start, use carry-over funds and seek restoration of federal funding for maintaining enrollment levels and creating a waiting list for spots that could be filled with additional funding.

In her affidavit, Bitsoi said the tribe would have to lay off 147 employees, cut hours for 40 more and close nearly three dozen Head Start centers without the higher funding. Each of the 90 centers the tribe says it operates must have a teacher, a teacher’s aide, a cook and a bus driver to stay open.

Begaye said the emergency funding he has until Tuesday to approve will prevent job losses and cutting hours. He said the tribe would seek reimbursement from the federal government.

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