The Tohatchi Veterans Organization on the Navajo Nation. Photo: Navajo Head Start
Education | Law | National

Navajo Nation claims victory over Trump in federal funding fight

Leaders of the Navajo Nation are rejoicing after a federal judge rebuked the Trump administration for reducing the tribe's share of federal Head Start funds.

Last fall, the Department of Health and Human Services told the tribe it was only going to receive about $15.8 million to educate its youngest citizens. The amount, which represented a cut of $7.3 million from prior levels, came after government officials said the Head Start on the reservation was “chronically underenrolled.”

The decision from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., prompted the tribe to allocate an "emergency" $6.3 million earlier this month in order to keep funds flowing to the program, which serves upwards of 2,000 young Navajos a year.

But a ruling from a federal judge on Tuesday changes course. Though Judge Dabney L. Friedrich did not determine whether HHS was right, or wrong, about the “chronic underenrollment," she said the Trump administration erred by taking action without following established law and procedures.

The 31 percent reduction in funds was "not in accordance" with federal law and must be "set aside," Dabney wrote in the 18-page decision, a copy of which was posted by Turtle Talk. Additionally, HHS can't cut any Head Start funds unless the tribe is "afforded the notice, appeal, and hearing rights to which it is entitled" under federal law, she said.

Coming a month after Dabney declined to issue an injunction in the case, the ruling brought cheers from Navajoland, where leaders have been closely following the lawsuit.

“We applaud the federal court for making sure the federal government provides proper notice, appeal and hearing rights are afforded before reducing any funding that impacts the cognitive development of our children,” President Russell Begaye said in a press release on Tuesday. Previously, he had called the denial of an injunction "unfair and misleading" because he said it was based on inaccurate information presented by government attorneys.

Posted by Navajo Head Start on Monday, October 6, 2014

Delegates on the Navajo Nation Council the tribe's legislative body, were equally pleased. They said HHS has failed to take into account the unique and often difficult circumstances on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, which spans three states and is about the size of West Virginia.

“Federal officials are fully aware that that we lack the facilities to house Head Start school programs, which has resulted in under-enrollment," said Delegate Jonathan Hale, who chairs the council committee that deals with education issues. "Where are we going to put the students?"

“Many of our young children depend on head start education and to take funding away from them without providing an appeal right to the tribe is very disappointing," added Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who also serves on the committee.

The tribe's top legal official also hailed the speedy turnaround in the case. The injunction had been denied on February 28 and officials were worried about the fate of not only the students, but the staff members who provide language, transportation, food and other crucial services to Navajo children.

“The court’s quick action to reverse this reduction will require the HHS Secretary to take stock of the challenges we face in operating this program,” said Attorney General Ethel Branch of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

The Navajo Nation's share of Head Start funding represents just a small portion of the overall program. The $1.3 trillion #Omnibus spending bill that was just signed into law provides nearly $9.9 billion for the program in the current fiscal year, an increase of $610 million from prior levels, according to the House Committee on Appropriations

But attorneys for the Trump administration said the Navajo Head Start has experienced "underenrollment for years" and even "decades," according to court filings. By their count, the tribe is serving about 1,400 students, not the 2,000-plus the tribe has claimed in applications for funding.

As a result, the government believes other tribes with "critical needs and waiting lists of eligible Indian children" are being denied money, though specific examples weren't provided in a recent filing. At the same time, the Trump team sought to reduce funds for Head Start in fiscal year 2018, a request that was rejected with the new spending bill. A cut is also being sought for fiscal year 2019, which begins on October 1.

"Funding has not kept pace with inflation," the Metlakatla Indian Community, a federally-recognized tribe, told HHS during a recent consultation in Alaska.

According to HHS, Head Start programs are operating in more than 155 tribal communities. Grantees must contribute at least 20 percent to their budgets, with 80 percent coming from the federal government.

The Navajo Nation's 90 centers are spread across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Most are located at the local chapter house, or nearby, in order to provide services close to the community.

According to tribal officials, the loss of $7.3 million would have required Head Start to lay off 147 employees and reduce hours for 40 additional employees. The tribe was considering shutting down nearly three dozen centers amid the funding fight.

“The people who make the nation’s Head Start program work so well for Navajo children across our reservation – the teachers, and bus drivers, and aides, and cooks – they are the ones who won this case,” said President Begaye.