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Navajo Nation settles with former education superintendent

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 4-08

Navajo education officials hope they can move forward to establish standards that would incorporate tribal culture and traditions into schoolwork now that the tribe has reached a settlement with the former education superintendent.

The Navajo Nation reached the settlement with Tommy Lewis Jr., who claimed he was unjustly fired from his position.

Lewis, reached by phone, confirmed the case was settled but didn’t elaborate.

“I was told to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “Can’t say anything.”

The tribe’s Board of Education voted in late July to oust Lewis, a little more than a year after he was selected for the job, saying he failed to implement a strategic plan for the Department of Dine Education.

Lewis later filed a complaint with the Navajo Office of Labor Relations, claiming his rights were violated under what’s known as Dine Fundamental Law, which requires a courteous and respectful way of solving disagreements and disputes. He sought reinstatement, back pay and benefits.

Tribal Council Education Committee member Leonard Anthony said board members have been at odds over whether to settle with Lewis and were warned against firing a man they had hired.

“They squabbled over that authority and power,” he said.

Acting Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez has drafted legislation, sponsored by members of the Education Committee, to reduce the size of the 11-member education board to seven – all of which would be appointed by the tribal president. The proposal also would give the president the authority to appoint the education superintendent subject to confirmation by the committee.

Seanez said the proposed legislation was requested because of the difficulties that were encountered with the dismissal of Lewis as well as a lack of achievement on the part of the board.

Board president Jimmie Begay did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.

The Tribal Council amended its education law in 2005 to establish the state-like Department of Dine Education, a board and a superintendent.

Lewis was selected as the first education chief, but after he was ousted, the tribe could not search for a permanent replacement while his case was pending. A posting for the position was on the department’s Web site Friday.

Anthony said the lack of a superintendent has meant the tribe has fallen behind in addressing the No Child Left Behind Act, designing curriculum and meeting other requirements outlined in the education law.

“I can tell you there’s quite a bit of things that need to be done,” he said. “Staff members in education are doing their thing without any principal leadership. ... If you don’t have someone to lead the education, well, we’re not doing too well.”