- Associated Press - Friday, February 9, 2018

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The Navajo Nation has sued the federal government, alleging it was denied an opportunity to appeal a 32 percent cut to Head Start funding.

The tribe received about $23 million in each of the three past years for Head Start and Early Head Start programs across the reservation.

The Department of Health and Human Services cut that amount to under $16 million because fewer children were enrolled in the programs.

The lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Washington, D.C., contends funding cannot be reduced without reasonable notice and a full hearing within 120 days of an appeal.

It seeks a judge’s order declaring the decision by the agency’s Administration for Children and Families unlawful.

“If the nation is afforded its statutory right to appeal, we will subsequently use the appeal process to challenge the extent of any alleged bases for funding cuts, including any related to enrollment levels,” tribal Attorney General Ethel Branch said in a statement.

The federal agency declined comment on the lawsuit.

The Navajo Nation operates one of the largest tribal Head Start programs in the country but has struggled to maintain it.

It hit a low point in 2006 when the federal government revoked funding after finding wide-ranging threats to children’s safety, including dozens of employees with criminal records, broken heaters in classrooms, jagged play equipment and dogs and horses on playgrounds.

Funding for Early Head Start was restored almost immediately and five months later for Head Start.

The federal government threatened to pull funding again in 2010 and has proposed cuts in grant funding in other years. The tribe now has about 90 Head Start and Early Head Start centers open, according to the Department of Dine Education’s most recent quarterly report.

The tribal department’s superintendent and assistant superintendent were out of the office Friday and did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Tribal officials have said enrollment numbers fluctuate because of inadequate facilities and staffing. Each Head Start facility must have a teacher, aide, cook and bus driver or else it cannot stay open. The programs once served more than 4,000 children.

The Administration for Children and Families first notified the tribe in September that the grant funding would be reduced for the upcoming fiscal year starting March 1. The reduced amount would serve 1,433 children from 3 to 5, whereas the $23 million would fund 2,105 children.

The agency can reduce funding based on enrollment numbers, but the tribe said it also must be given a chance to explain what led to it.

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