Hopi school dispute takes a legal turn

MC USA files complaint, seeking financial records from Arizona school board

Sep 28, 2015 by and

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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.”

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  • Bruce Leichty

    Thank you for quoting both sides, although after reading this article I am left with many questions about how the local board can see this as an MCUSA takeover (not a good idea — but proper financial controls are always a good idea). The prospect of headlines in mainstream media reading “Mennonite Church seeks to evict school children” is also not a welcome proposition. Property ownership alone does not give one the right to monitor or control finances, so that makes me wonder whether MCUSA really is overstepping here — not to say that there couldn’t be very legitimate concerns (we are left in the dark as to what these “other” concerns are). Is there a lease or operating agreement? One can certainly support financial accountability, but generally a “landlord” won’t get that unless there are some documents that call for it. I would like to see a follow-up article with more detail. The need for litigation is always unfortunate (I speak as a litigator in Arizona’s neighboring state), and one wonders about history of the impasse. It sounds like a good opportunity for experts at conflict resolution to become involved, to ensure that personalities, turf battles and underlying grievances don’t ultimately end up harming the 55 students.

    • Debra B. Stewart

      Bruce, reminds me of an old Mennonite Chicago story (which I will not repeat) which ended sans litigation – just some insulted, indignant about to be evicted church folks and an innovative, imaginative attorney up against the mighty MBM. Amazing what can be accomplished without getting all ugly and stuff.

  • Jon Trotter

    I foresee MC USA winning this case. HMS “has no plans of allowing MC USA to take over finances and governance,” says Rebecca Yoder, but that’s not what they want. They want documentation showing that money isn’t being misappropriated and that the administration operates ethically. The HMS board refuses to show documentation. Since MC USA owns the property, they have the power to evict. I applaud the task force for not turning a blind eye to mismanagement and taking action.

  • Jason Miller

    From what I know this is a nasty situation all the way around. There are more layers to this story, and the history of the school and the mission, than could ever be explained succinctly in a news article. But money and control are at the heart of everything. The Hopis do not run the school, but they are generally supportive of and appreciate the work that goes on there.

    I lived and worked at the school and on the rez from ’99-’01. The Mennonite institutions have always, since the beginning of their interactions with the Hopi in 1893 through H.R. Voth, struggled to understand and respect the Hopi ways of doing things.

    For example: “There is no private ownership of land: these were clan and village lands before the Federal Government arrived and turned them into trust lands. The traditional clan and village ownership of land survives. Property passes from mother to daughter. Men move to their wife’s village and farm her fields.”


    You’ll notice the land ownership is female! Hopi culture is matriarchal. How well do you think the Mennonite men accepted this practice?

    The story I have always heard is this: “The 40-acre site belongs to the Hopi tribe, but in 1925 was designated by President Calvin Coolidge for the exclusive use of the General Conference Mennonite Church for mission and educational purposes. If such use should be discontinued, the land and buildings return to Hopi ownership.”


    Carlos Romero stated the same information in a Sept. 9 letter to the Hopi people in the Hopi Tutuveni tribal newsletter: “As you may be aware, Mennonite Church USA owns the real property that is currently being used for the Hopi Mission School (HMS) in Kykotsmovi Village, Arizona. The Mennonites were granted the lands in a patent by Calvin Coolidge. President of the United States, dated Sept. 30, 1925.”


    In spite of all of this information, and the existence of a Hopi tribal government and court system, MCUSA chooses to use the court system of the State of Arizona to try to seize the property and continues the typical white ways of interacting with Native Americans and reservation institutions.

    I could go on and on. My experience on the reservation is that there is never a clear narrative and there are always more than two sides to an issue. Things are always more complicated than they seem.

  • Jeff Linthicum

    1 Cor 6:4-8 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother goes to law against another — and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.

    It seems that if there is a “concern” financially (I say concern because there isn’t even an accusation they can make) then we have troubles. But our schools associated with MEA have no boundaries when it comes to theological concerns. Glad to see we have our priorities in the right place.

  • Debra B. Stewart

    This is another sad tale of the church not having its affairs in order. Had MC USA and the school simply sat down when the GC’s became OM’s, discussed the situation, come to an agreement and put it in writing, things could have been a lot more in line with how we pretend we do things. Frankly, I’m on the side of the school and my guess is a court may just agree – no paperwork, no lease, no requirement of financial disclosures – no case.

  • Forest Hazel

    Just curious, how was the school land deeded to the MCUSA, since the story would seem to have it located in one of the Hopi villages that form the Hopi Reservation?

  • Quinn Brenneke

    I would really like to see a follow up article with more of the Hopi Mission School voice. Have there been attempts to contact anyone from HMS for an interview? I can’t tell if the HMS quoted statement was created after MWR inquiries or as a press release in response to the MC USA September 9 release.

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