The soil below Bluff Elementary is saturated with septic effluent. The classrooms don’t have enough space for the growing student body. And ceiling tiles sometimes come crashing down onto desks in the middle of lessons.
This small southern Utah school, built in the 1950s, is now too old and too run-down for many improvements. But finding a suitable spot to relocate before it becomes entirely unusable has been difficult.
San Juan County School District’s first choice, a small lot near State Route 163 purchased in 2015, abutted an ancient American Indian burial ground — making it unacceptable for many Navajo families whose children make up 90 percent of the enrollment.
The next three years came with heated debate, stalled construction plans, dead-end negotiations and threats that if a new site wasn’t selected soon, students would have to be bused to Montezuma Creek or Blanding. That could add 20 minutes to a commute that’s already two hours for some living on the reservation.
“They’ve been trying to solve this puzzle for quite some time,” said state Treasurer David Damschen.
In early April, the school board moved forward with another hoped-for answer.
With a 5-0 vote, it approved a deal to acquire a 23.61-acre parcel owned by the Utah Navajo Trust Fund where the tribe hosts an annual two-day fair in the fall. The newly proposed site sits in a flat and sandy creek bed.
Early archaeological and geological appraisals found that about half of the lot is in a wash area that, with heavy rain — which is infrequent in this arid corner of the state — could become a muddy swimming pool. Another 12 acres, though, was “deemed very, very usable,” said the school district’s superintendent, Ron Nielson. “You have a very good protective zone.”
There was unanimous support, too, from the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, which was established in 1933 by the federal government to manage royalties from oil wells on Utah’s portion of the Navajo Nation, and its tribal advisory board.
“It’s a classic no-brainer scenario. This is just good for Utah Navajos,” said Damschen, who serves as chairman of the trust fund board and helped broker the deal.
The trust fund will exchange the fairground property in Bluff for 5 acres in Monument Valley that it currently leases from the school district for a medical and dental clinic it owns. The two parcels — though much different in size — were appraised at just an $8,000 difference in value.
The 23.61 acres in Bluff, which sit at the doorstep of the newly reduced national monument at Bears Ears, were assessed at $567,000. The 5 acres in Monument Valley, near the border of Arizona, were $575,000.
“A piece of land in Monument Valley is at a little bit of a premium,” Damschen said.
The swap resolves the pending crisis at the elementary school. But for some tribal members, it’s another fight over land where what they actually wanted wasn’t considered an option. “That’s just how it is between the Navajos and San Juan County,” said Navajo Nation Council delegate Davis Filfred.
He wants to improve education in the area and had fought for the school to be built on the reservation so it would be more centrally located for the roughly 120 students enrolled there.
“Students have to be picked up at 6 a.m. to get on the bus,” he said. “I don’t know why they don’t want to build a school on the Nation. … It’s a struggle, but that’s just how it is.”
The new site, too, he said, is in a known flood zone. He’s seen water gush over it two or three times, making it impassable. “I think that’s hazardous for kids.”
And the first spot, Filfred believes, would have been too close to an excavated site where the remains of 18 American Indians were removed three decades ago. He’s visited the tract and noticed pottery on the ground from the Ancestral Puebloans who lived there.
“It’s a place where you’re not supposed to go,” Filfred said. “It’s a forbidden place.”
Superintendent Nielson said it’s not clear yet what the district will do with that plot, which cost $500,000. Preliminary tests have shown no artifacts underground at the new site.
The debate over the school relocation, though, has exacerbated existing tensions that American Indians, who make up roughly half of the county’s residents, aren’t fairly represented in government decisions. A federal judge recently redrew the boundaries to give Navajos a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board seats. The decision was meant to reverse the historic political domination by whites there.
It’s also picked at the scab left from the former Bears Ears National Monument, which five tribes, including the Navajo Nation, fought for and President Donald Trump carved up late last year. The executive order is being challenged in federal court.
Damschen understands some of the frustrations, but said “they need a new school in the worst possible way.” Bluff Elementary is stable for now, but the septic system was last overhauled in 2001 and only expected to last five years. There’s no room to expand it, and most else there is in a constant state of disrepair.
“Clearly, the structure is dated. It’s cramped. It’s just not a good facility all the way around.”