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Navajo president says he’ll OK emergency Head Start funding

March 5, 2018
Felicia Fonseca
The Durango Herald

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – 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.