This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Hopi school dispute takes a legal turn

An impasse over finances, transparency, authority and land ownership between Hopi Mission School and Mennonite Church USA is moving from conversations to courtrooms.

Hopi Mission School teacher Kristen Schrag leads a class in August. — Hopi Mission School
Hopi Mission School teacher Kristen Schrag leads a class in August. — Hopi Mission School

On Sept. 14, MC USA filed a complaint with Navajo County (Ariz.) Superior Court asking that the school board be evicted from the property. The school sits on land deeded to the General Conference Mennonite Church, a predecessor of MC USA.

“The suit is basically stating that we own the property and we want them to vacate the property, based on the fact that we have ownership and they no longer have the authority from us to [run the school],” said Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency.

The private kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school in Kykots­movi, Ariz., is a Native American ministry with decades of Mennonite history and influence. The General Conference operated the school from 1951 until the 1990s.

At that point, declining GC funds spurred creation of an HMS board and a separate Mennonite foundation to accept donations. Mennonite Voluntary Service supported multiple workers until the unit was part of a 2014 wave of closings.

The school, which started classes in August and is operating with 55 students, has also been supported by American Baptist Churches USA.

MC USA convened a task force in June 2014 to address administrative and financial activities of HMS. Romero said MC USA offices began receiving mounting concerns about two years ago.

“In the past year we have received numerous concerns regarding the operation of the school, particularly around finances, but other issues as well,” Romero said. “Our task force worked very hard at trying to address those concerns and gather the information that we needed in order to be able to address those concerns.

“During that time, the Hopi Mission School board has been unwilling to cooperate with the task force in order to provide us with the adequate information that we needed regarding how the school is being run and day-to-day operations.”

The task force gave a deadline of June 30, 2015, to provide what it considers sufficient documentation.

“We have not been able to get information that will give us the peace of mind that finances are being run and used appropriately,” Romero said.

He said the task force continued to request information after the deadline, but the board did not respond to requests.

He was careful to note that MC USA is not accusing the school of financial mismanagement, only that it has not received documentation to alleviate concerns.

“The most important message we try to say over and over again is that Mennonite Church USA is fully committed to the mission of the Hopi Mission School and is fully committed to see the school continue and work with that mission,” Romero said.

Are there legal ties?

Franklin Hoover, the HMS board’s attorney, stated in a July 15 letter to Hopi Tri­bal Council chair Herman Honanie that there is no agreement or document establishing a legal relationship between MC USA and HMS.

Hoover stated that the General Conference encouraged the HMS board to find funding from other sources in the 1990s and that funding from the General Conference and later MC USA diminished to nothing in the 2014-15 school year.

“MC USA’s recent attempts to step back in and take over the school will be resisted by HMS,” he wrote.

The HMS board — which includes superintendent/administrator Thane Epefanio — drafted a statement for MWR in response to a Sept. 9 MC USA news release. The Sept. 17 document, also signed by principal Rebecca Yoder, states HMS desires to continue working with individual Mennonite congregations “but has no plans of allowing MC USA to take over finances and governance.”

“HMS has made several attempts to resolve this issue, but the MC USA task force has not accepted the HMS board’s response to their assertions,” said the statement, noting administrators met with the task force for 12 hours over two days in January.

“. . . The HMS Board denies MC USA’s allegations against the school and its staff, and requests that MC USA cease its public campaign of using rumors to try to close the school.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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