By Tammy Gray
Garry McDowell’s philosophy is that every student in the Holbrook district should have the same opportunities as those in richer districts across the state. With that philosophy in mind, he took on the task of not only managing the Holbrook district’s finances for the last 30 years, but also fighting for every dollar he could find that might be available to improve the schools.
“It’s about finding money, creating resources and making sure our kids get their share of resources,” he said of his role in the district.
When he arrived in 1984, the schools faced some serious financial challenges. McDowell explained that a large number of jobs had been cut at the Cholla Power Plant and as a result, families were leaving town and student enrollment was dropping. At the same time, the district was sending reservation students from the Dilcon and Greasewood areas to other schools, and was not participating in the federal lunch program. The state was also withholding certain payments because of the amount of federal impact aid Holbrook received.
McDowell began by reinstating the federal lunch program and working with administrators to bring all students residing in the school district to Holbrook schools. He was also a founding member of the coalition that took successful legal action against the state to force it to equally fund all school districts, regardless of whether they received federal impact aid payments.
“We were able to prove that state payments were not equalized and they had to let us keep the federal aid and receive full state aid,” he said. “That allowed us to increase teachers’ salaries and hire more teachers.”
In one of his proudest accomplishments, McDowell spearheaded the effort to construct a grade school in Indian Wells. He explained that it took the creation of a new rule in Arizona to make the new school possible.
“For years the Navajo people had requested a school and it never seemed to be possible,” he said, noting that young students in kindergarten through third grade were spending up to three hours every day on a bus just to get to and from school.
McDowell joined a coalition that took legal action against the state to force equity in school facilities. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, with the coalition obtaining a favorable ruling. The Holbrook district, however, did not meet the initial requirements since the existing facilities had enough space for all the students in the district.
“They created a new rule, the geographic exception rule,” he said.
The exception allowed the district to obtain funding for new facilities because of the distance that the students had to travel to reach the existing schools.
“Indian Wells was the first geographic exception school,” McDowell noted. “When it opened we only had about 150 kids; now we’re up to about 500 and there are plans to expand.”
According to McDowell, the initial concerns about the cost of adding a new school have dissipated since increasing enrollment and eligibility for different types of funding have brought additional money into the district. He notes that the district’s strength lies in its diversity.
And the diversity of the district is one of the things he most enjoys about it.
“The strength of our community is our diversity,” he said. “There is more that unites us than divides us.”
Growing up in the Bay Area in California in the 1960s, McDowell explained that as a teenager he did not fully grasp the importance or the meaning of the social and political changes going on at the time.
“As a 15 year old, and Los Angeles is being burned, I didn’t understand why. I was trying to understand,” he said. “And then as an adult in the small town of Holbrook I see the connection.”
McDowell explained that Holbrook was one of the first cases in the state of placement of minorities on local governing boards when the first Navajo members were seated.
“As a result, some good things came out of the 1960s,” he said. “Those board members give us a broader perspective.”
In addition to looking at diversity as a strength of the schools, McDowell noted that he has also tried to view the district through the eyes of a concerned parent.
“I’ve tried to envision, what would you want as a parent? You’d want the best and most qualified teachers, small class sizes and the best technology you can get to create a learning environment,” he said.
McDowell noted that one of his biggest learning moments in the position came when he realized that the way to make real change in the district was to work closely with legislators to obtain funding.
“When I first started, I didn’t know quite how it all worked. I saw other schools getting money and I wondered how they did it. Then the light bulb came on and I learned that how you get it is you ask for it,” he said.
After 30 years of asking for, and sometimes pressing the issue through legal action, McDowell has decided to retire. He and his wife Kathy plan to remain in Holbrook, but will do some traveling to visit their 18 grandchildren.
According to McDowell, the small-town atmosphere and the ability to be closely involved in the lives and education of his six children has been his favorite part of the experience.
“I could step out my back door and walk over the red rocks to my office and the kids would walk with me to work and then down to Hulet,” he said. “I could go have lunch with my kids whenever I wanted. It’s been so nice living in a small town.”