Ex-Navajo education superintendent challenges firing 9-07

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP)
The Navajo Nation’s first education superintendent is challenging a decision by the tribe’s Board of Education to fire him, citing a law that requires Navajos to discuss any serious decisions before they’re made.

Tommy Lewis Jr. filed a complaint with the Navajo Office of Labor Relations last week seeking reinstatement, back pay and benefits.

The board voted in late July to fire Lewis a little more than a year after he was selected for the job. Board vice president Rebecca Benally said Lewis failed to implement a strategic plan for the Department of Dine Education.

Reynold Lee, director of the office, said Wednesday that he is reviewing Lewis’ complaint. The office, which serves as an investigative body, has 180 days to review the document and determine whether any laws were violated.

The office then could attempt to settle the matter between Lewis and the Board of Education but does not have any enforcement authority.

Navajo Attorney General Louis Denetsosie, whose office represents all tribal entities, declined comment Thursday.

“It’s just not appropriate for us to comment at this time,” he said.

Benally and board president Jimmie Begay did not return messages Wednesday seeking comment.

Lewis claims his rights were violated under what’s known as Dine Fundamental Law, which requires a courteous and respectful way of solving disagreements and disputes.

Lewis was an at-will employee, meaning he could be fired at any time without reason. But he said that is a non-Navajo concept that violates fundamental law because he wasn’t allowed to discuss board members’ concerns with them before they voted to fire him.

“The Dine Fundamental Law requires talking things out and holds that serious decisions are made for serious reasons and that even when there is a disagreement, that the parties follow the teaching of k’e and treat each other with courtesy and respect,” he said in the complaint.

K’e – maintaining relationships through kinship and having respect for oneself and others – is the foundation of self-identity for Navajos.

Attorney Larry Ruzow said Lewis has consulted with him on the matter and that the former superintendent has a strong argument under fundamental law, which is based on customary, traditional, natural and common law.

As Navajos, the board members had an obligation to tell Lewis why they weren’t happy with him and give him a chance to respond, said Ruzow, who is not representing Lewis.

“Not hearing each other out is a violation of this Dine Fundamental Law,” said Ruzow, who practices education law on the Navajo Nation. “The classic issue is, does fundamental law trump the statute that it’s at-will employment.”

Ruzow said that the Navajo teaching “is that you try to resolve issues, because you can avoid harsh words.”

Lewis has criticized some board members, saying they have a personal vendetta against him.