Dr. Dave Goldtooth.
Dr. Dave Goldtooth is nearing the end of a benchmark in his second semester as principal at Tséhootsooí Primary Learning Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
It’s a return home. He beams talking about leading instruction with a predominantly Native American staff for his Navajo students in kindergarten through third grade, educating them on language and culture.
“One of many ways that I find students learn most is appreciating when they’re learning through culturally and linguistically relevant instruction that focuses on their language, their culture and their heritage,” Goldtooth said. “And another piece to that is having been on the reservation just like my current students.”
As he preps to help guide his students through the remainder of the school year, Goldtooth is also finding success in a professional battle that disrupted his career.
Last year, he had to resign from his role as superintendent at Central Consolidated School District, which serves thousands of Native American students in the Four Corners area of New Mexico. He sued the district and its general counsel Germaine Chappelle.
Goldtooth took the job as COVID-19 hit communities across the world. As he was leading the district through the challenges of the pandemic, he was undermined, disrespected and micromanaged, according to the lawsuit filed in early August. School administrators and the district’s legal counsel created a hostile work environment, the complaint stated.
It’s part of ongoing discrimination against Native American teachers and district leaders, according to the lawsuit.
“Inexplicably, the defendants have routinely overlooked qualified Native American candidates and have hired non-Natives with significantly less qualifications to fill positions of authority within the CCSD schools,” the complaint stated.
The systemic racism also impacted Indigenous students, according to the lawsuit: “Historically and currently (with the exception of Dr. Goldtooth’s efforts) CCSD has failed to meet Native students’ educational needs.”
And his argument is proving successful.
A judge ruled in Goldtooth’s favor against Chappelle, entering a default judgment, according to court documents, and she is appealing the decision. Goldtooth’s attorney, Rosario Vega Lynn, said her client is entitled to damages, and the court is reviewing if Chappelle can pay. Vega Lynn points out that Chappelle is required to carry malpractice insurance.
It’s not quite over though. Goldtooth also brought his case against the school district and every member of the school board. That part of the case is set for formal discovery after the judge ruled against the board’s motion to dismiss. A trial date is set for May. The district can negotiate a settlement with Goldtooth at any time.
In fact, the district could even bring Goldtooth back into the superintendent position. The school board recently decided to place Daniel Benavidez, the person that replaced Goldtooth, on administrative leave, opting not to renew his contract.
Board President Marion Wells told the Farmington Daily Times that the board made the decision due to overwhelming community concerns about Benavidez, specifying that the move is not disciplinary action but a need for different leadership.
It’s unclear if Goldtooth’s lawsuit had anything to do with the recent shake up at Central Consolidated, but the issues he raised would require an institutional groundswell that could take years to deliver a full remedy.
“I’m a firm believer of equity where kids and students like my own — and others that are non-Indigenous — are equally receiving education through the lens of self-identity,” he said. “It is important from my leadership, because that’s how you bridge the difference of the perceptions of individuals coming from different walks of life.”
Goldtooth’s current position as principal at an elementary school allows him to focus these practices in Native American communities, his home, and to continue to develop what he calls “transformational leadership.”
“I build a vision and mission around how we can bridge a Native thinking, Indigenous instruction, knowledge and responsiveness to students’ backgrounds, cultures, skills, academia and most importantly, the different languages that they hear,” he said, “Not only in the school setting, but outside the walls of classrooms.”
The case is unfolding against the backdrop of educational reforms around New Mexico stemming from the Yazzie-Martinez court case, which touched on similar problems statewide. The judge ruled that state government provides unequal public education to some students in violation of the N.M. constitution. As part of a settlement agreement, there’s an ongoing push for traditional language courses and culturally relevant curriculum, plus an effort to promote and hire Indigenous educators.
Goldtooth won’t shut the door on returning to Central Consolidated, especially if the word “interim” that he never shook in his time as superintendent is not tacked onto his official title.
This time, he will walk in with more confidence about taking on a system he said was designed to discriminate against people from his background, he said. People reached out to encourage him through each step in the court process.
“I have developed some mental empowerment through conversations of individuals,” he said. “My head is not spinning to find out who knows what I’m going through. I do feel that sensitivity and conscience over in New Mexico when I had those conversations. And they’re the ones that are telling me, ‘You’re doing it for us.’ ”
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