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More than three decades ago, the ancient remains of 18 American Indians were removed from burial grounds west of Bluff to make way for highway construction.

Now, San Juan School District officials plan to build a desperately needed elementary school on this land purchased last year from two prominent local families. But the site is unacceptable for many Navajo families, who don't want their children and grandchildren attending school so close to places where Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, lived and buried their dead centuries ago.

"My first grandchild will go to school there. I do not want him to get ill. It is not culturally right for him," Melinda Blackhorse said at a recent San Juan school board meeting.

Board president Debbie Christiansen has repeatedly assured parents that the school would not be built on archaeological sites and accused critics of spreading "misinformation" at Navajo chapter house meetings.

The controversy has stalled the project and if it is not resolved soon, Bluff's kids will be bussed to Blanding and Montezuma Creek for school. The ground under Bluff Elementary School is so saturated with septic effluent that the building will soon be unfit for use. Already, failures have backed sewage up.

"We are living on borrowed time because the septic system could fail at any time," said district Superintendent Douglas Wright, who is to retire this June after 34 years with the district.

The school's enrollment is 136, including pre-kindergarten pupils, up from 112 last year. Most are Navajo.

The Navajo Utah Commission, an arm of the Navajo Nation Council, weighed in recently with a resolution urging school officials to find a different site.

"The cultural beliefs and practices of the Navajo people are strong, enduring, and meaningful in particularization to disturbance and disrespect of archaeological sites," the resolution states. "The Navajo people are not politicizing their beliefs and values and certainly not villianizing (sic) the San Juan School District in standing up for cultural beliefs and well-being of Navajo students."

The controversy is exacerbating a perception that the Navajo, who comprise half the county's residents, are not fairly represented on the school board. The tribe and county are embroiled in litigation over voting districts and procedures that tribal lawyers say suppresses a Navajo presence on the board and the San Juan County Commission. Two of the school board's five members are American Indian.

Still, school district officials say they are sensitive to American Indians' cultural concerns and have taken steps to address them by building the new school on ground free of archaeological resources.

The Bluff school's septic was last overhauled in 2001 with a fix that was expected to last only five years. Officials had hoped that the town would build a wastewater treatment system, thus solving the problem. But it has yet to be built and the district is now short on options.

The soggy ground under the school is no longer suitable for construction, forcing district officials to look for a new site. They identified 12.5 acres in two parcels on State Route 163 available for $50,000 an acre — a large value for San Juan County, but reflecting the desirability of real estate in tourist-friendly Bluff.

In a $500,000 deal, the district board unanimously voted to acquire the land from Eugene Shumway and Steve Simpson last January. Simpson accepted a reduced $25,000 an acre for five of his acres as a charitable gesture to ensure a school remain in Bluff, according to meeting minutes.

Officials consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office and were informed that land was safe to develop.

"However certain individuals have spread the word that our site is full of burials. It is not true," Wright said at a March 8 board meeting. "It is a tragedy that certain individuals do not want to see a school for your community. I gave you facts and you chose to ignore the facts. We could argue about it all night long."

He acknowledged a survey found a fire pit and lithic scatters elsewhere on the property. But no other burial site have been found and the school will not be built near previously excavated sites, which are under the highway right of way. The goal behind purchase such a large tract was to ensure there would be suitable spot for a school free of any artifacts.

Whitehorse, who serves on the Utah Indian Education Commission, is skeptical.

"I went to the site. I was avoiding the pottery all over the ground. On the Navajo reservation you could not build a home on that. It is not right," she said at a board meeting.

Twitter: @brianmaffly