WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A federal court on Tuesday restored $7.3 million to the Navajo Nation for its struggling Head Start program after the tribe said it was denied an opportunity to appeal a cut in federal grant funding.
The tribe has received about $23 million annually in recent years for its Head Start and Early Head Start programs — one of the largest in the country run by a tribe. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cut the amount to under $16 million because of chronic under-enrollment.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled the agency cannot reduce funding without giving the tribe a chance to appeal. Although the agency notified the tribe it would cut funding and invited tribal officials to explain why the program has about 670 fewer students than in previous years, Friedrich said the letter didn’t meet requirements for the appeals process.
“The reduction letter did not clearly convey appeal rights,” Friedrich said. “It did not use the word ‘appeal,’ nor did the letter state that additional information could change HHS’s initial decision.”
Tribal officials praised Friedrich’s decision to restore the full funding to serve about 2,100 students. The tribe has reported serving between 1,000 and 1,600 students in the past three years. Efforts to build the numbers haven’t been successful.
“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,” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch wrote in a statement.
Messages left late Tuesday with the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families weren’t immediately returned. In court documents, attorneys for the agency said the Navajo Nation routinely fails to spend millions of dollars it is budgeted for Head Start, and allowing the tribe to receive money to serve students it doesn’t have denies services to other eligible American Indian children.
The attorneys said the agency should be allowed to withdraw funding or recapture it until an appeal has concluded.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale said the federal government is well aware the tribe lacks places to house Head Start programs, and resorts to using local government buildings or other facilities within tribal communities.
“The federal government should ensure the funds are used rather than attempting to take away from this vital program,” he said in a statement.
Navajo President Russell Begaye recently signed legislation to divert money from the tribe’s rainy day fund to the Head Start program to make up for the reduced federal funding, and ensure workers wouldn’t leave for other jobs and parents had places to send their children.
He has said the tribe would seek reimbursement from the federal government.