Judge Won’t Block $7M in Cuts to Navajo Head-Start Program

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge refused Wednesday to stop a $7.3 million cut of federal funding that the Navajo Nation collects for an education program whose low enrollment has been chronic.

The 12-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich says the nation had been collecting $23 million a year to operate Head Start childhood-education services for low-income families, but has been “unable to achieve or maintain its funded enrollment of 2,068 Head Start students.”

On Sept. 26, the Department of Health and Human Services informed the tribe that it would reduce Head Start funding because of such under-enrollment to $15.7 million for fiscal-year 2018.

The Navajo Nation filed suit in Washington, but U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich declined to issue an injunction Wednesday, one day before the March 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Citing the Navajo Nation’s regular inability to spend its grant money, Friedrich rejected claims that the funding loss would cause 672 children to lose access to Head Start program services, and 147 employees to lose their jobs.

“The nation regularly fails to spend millions of dollars of its Head Start funds in a budget year,” the 12-page opinion states. “In fiscal year 2016, the Navajo Nation obligated only $19.3 million of $25.5 million awarded. In fiscal year 2017, the Navajo Nation is expected to obligate only $17.4 million of $23.1 million awarded.”

Abbreviating Health & Human Services, Friedrich also called it “unlikely that there are 672 additional, actual students who would enroll but for HHS’s decision.”

The Navajo Nation also failed to persuade Friedrich that layoffs were imminent. The nation said layoffs would begin a few weeks after the start of the fiscal year on March 1, but McFadden note that resolution of the case could mitigate such harm since it would not be immediate.

Courts rarely grant injunctive relief, which is considered “an extraordinary remedy” under Winter v. Res. Def. Council, Inc.

McFadden indicated that she would set an expedited schedule to resolve the case on the merits.

Steven Gordon, an attorney for the Navajo Nation with the firm Holland & Knight, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the ruling. The tribe’s reservation spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Representatives for the Department of Justice also did not return an email seeking comment.

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