Judge rules in favor of MC USA in Hopi land dispute

Education agency hopes to start school by September

Jul 18, 2017 by and

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Mennonite Education Agency is planning to start a new chapter at Hopi Mission School in Ky­kotsmovi, Ariz., after Navajo County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Higgins ruled in favor of Mennonite Church USA.

Responding to concerns about finances and transparency at the school, MC USA filed a complaint on Sept. 14, 2015, asking that the HMS board be evicted from the property so that MEA could review documents.

Hopi Mission School students go on a celebratory run for a drug- free life during Red Ribbon Week activities on the school grounds Oct. 30, 2016. — Hopi Mission School

Hopi Mission School students go on a celebratory run for a drug- free life during Red Ribbon Week activities on the school grounds Oct. 30, 2016. — Hopi Mission School

The July 3 ruling says MC USA “may immediately take sole possession of the land.” It orders the HMS board to vacate the premises and arrange an orderly transition to allow the school to function in the 2017-18 academic year.

MEA executive director Carlos Romero said July 14 he hopes to be able to start the school year in August or September, depending on when MC USA gains possession of the property.

“It’s been a long process. It’s been an expensive process, but we’re feeling pretty good right now because the court has accepted all of our claims,” he said.

The kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school, a Mennonite Schools Council member, sits on land deeded to the General Conference Mennonite Church, a predecessor of MC USA that operated the school from 1951 until the 1990s.

The HMS board argued that the General Conference, and later MC USA, abandoned its ties to the school by reducing funding and creating a separate board and foundation to accept donations. Mennonite Voluntary Service supported multiple workers until the unit there was closed in 2014, roughly the same time MEA was hearing concerns about how funds were being used.

Kykotsmovi resident Marvin Yoyokie said July 20 that people were moving furniture and other items that week out of the school and housing area and into trucks.

Yoyokie hopes MC USA staff will visit the community soon to hold meetings with Kykotsmovi residents interested in the school’s future.

“My children went there, and my grandchildren went there,” he said. “After all these things, the mother didn’t have a choice but to pull them out, but they would like to return back.”

Making a new start

Romero and several other MC USA representatives plan to visit the school in the first half of August. Over the next few months, MEA must coordinate workers for the school and collect funds to pay for it.

In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, a number of people have expressed openness to helping MEA take over operations. Romero said Mennonite Voluntary Service is also on board.

“They are willing to work with us and go back there when we need to work on recruitment for the school,” he said. “There’s a lot of good will and a lot of people who are willing to start on behalf of Mennonite Church USA to get the school moving again.”

Romero and others will be on the lookout for financial documents when they visit HMS, but expectations are low that any will be found.

Federal investigators carted off paperwork last year that led to federal indictments naming superintendent Thane Epefanio, principals Rebecca Yoder and Anne Lowry and HMS board treasurer Matthew Schnei­der, alleging almost $1 million in fraudulent activity at HMS. A federal investigator testified in a Sept. 30 court hearing that Epefanio passed $1.6 million through the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas in the previous two years.

“When all of this happened we asked [individuals and congregations] to put their giving on hold until we had a clear direction and until we could guarantee the money would be used for the purpose it was being given,” Romero said, noting MEA has not budgeted funds for restarting HMS. “We are starting to go back to the people in the congregations and say, ‘We won, we have to get this going again. Will you be willing to support again?’ ”

In addition to discussions with MC USA agencies and supporting congregations, MEA has been in communication with Hopi tribal leadership throughout the last few years. Romero said Hopi leaders have been supportive and affirming of MC USA’s goals.

“We will need to do some relationship-building at the local level there with people to make sure that we get the support of the majority of the people,” he said.

Phone numbers associated with HMS are either out of service or give only a busy signal.

On May 22, a Hopi woman named Mary Honwytewa registered “Hopi Christian Academy” with the state of Arizona as a nonprofit corporation using the HMS address. Other principals on the filing are HMS board members Camille Quotskuyva and Garyth Poocha of Kykots­movi.

The voicemail message for Hopi Christian Academy’s telephone number states it is closed until further notice.

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