School board responds to Skandera
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
“I’m not trying to overstep my authority in any way, but that has been misunderstood,” Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education President Maria Flores told about 200 people attending a Tuesday, Feb. 2 board meeting.
Flores was responding to a Jan. 26 letter sent to the board by New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera that was critical of the board because of complaints “received by my office regarding the behavior of the board both individually and collectively.”
“These complaints have included allegations of rolling quorums and other open meeting violations, overstepping of the board’s authority regarding the dayto- day operations of the district, and the unwillingness of the board to follow state law regarding the teacher evaluation system,” Skandera wrote. Student school board adviser Andre Gonzales, a senior at Centennial High School, called Skandera’s letter “political grandstanding” that forces the school board to “talk about meeting minutes” instead of focusing on important education issues.
It’s a “‘He said, she said’ type of situation,” Gonzales said. He said Skandera should come to Las Cruces to meet with students and parents “to discuss issues that really matter.”
“We did the right thing,” said board member Maury Castro. “We did what we were elected to do. I refute the allegations A to Z.” Castro said he would welcome an investigation by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas of the charges made by Skandera.
“The secretary of education got her facts wrong or completely misunderstood,” Castro said. With “a simple phone call to our board president,” Skandera could have “learned more about the situation,” he said.
Board member Barbara Hall disagreed. The board, she said, is “not offering the kind of transparency and openness we need to offer.” Hall said the board should “examine the Skandera letter carefully” and “see what we can do about it.” Hall said some board members knew at the time about issues raised in the letter, but she did not. “On so many occasions,” Hall said, there were “discussions among two or three board members.”
Board member Ed Frank said he fully understands the state’s Open Meetings Act and has “painstakingly worked” to follow it. LCPS board members, he said, have “a tremendous amount” of experience and educational credentials. Skandera, he said, has no experience.
“So, is it surprising she got it all wrong in her scolding of the school board?” he asked.
Flores said she was “deeply troubled” by Skandera’s letter. “I don’t agree with its factual accuracy,” she said. “I did the best I could.”
The board unanimously approved a motion to direct the school board’s attorney to prepare a letter of response to Skandera.
Earlier, the board voted to permanently table the “continued use of existing law firms to provide general legal services” to the school district. Flores, Castro, Frank, Hall and fellow board member Chuck Davis voted for the motion to table. Board members said they didn’t need to vote on the matter since they voted in 2013 to have three firms in place with the district and a subsequent vote is, therefore, unnecessary. The school district’s law firms are Cuddy & McCarthy, Modrall Sperling and Walsh Gallegos, all of Albuquerque.
The board then voted to name Walsh Gallegos as the singular firm to handle all school board-related matters through June 30, 2016, which is when LCPS will issue a new request for proposal for legal services. Flores, Davis, Castro and Frank voted in favor of hiring Walsh Gallegos. Hall abstained.
One of the issues raised by Skandera in her letter was “the board president removing the district’s long-time attorney and engaging a new attorney without the approval of the board.”
The “long-time attorney” is Andy Sanchez of the Cuddy & McCarthy firm, which has served the school district for more than a decade. The “new attorney” is Elena Gallegos of Walsh Gallegos.
Hall said Sanchez had called her saying he had been fired by Flores.
“Mr. Sanchez misunderstood me,” said Flores, who said she did not fire him in what Skandera called “a violation of the roles and responsibility of the superintendent as chief executive officer of the district and an overstep of the board.”
Flores also said it was “not my purpose to insult” Superintendent Stan Rounds by “asking the superintendent to leave an open meeting being held at a board retreat in order for the board to meet with principals,” according to Skandera’s letter.
“Minutes from the meeting quote the board president noting ‘The board discussed the matter amongst themselves and decided the superintendent would not be part of the discussion.’ The minutes do not reflect this discussion, indicating the discussion had been conducted outside of the meeting suggesting either a rolling quorum, a polling of the board, or an illegal meeting,” according to the letter.
Flores said she didn’t ask anyone to leave the retreat, which was held last school year. She said she only wanted principals to be able to speak freely about the superintendent, since part of his evaluation by the board is related to his relationship with principals.
“I think we have an extremely good board, a great board” said NEALas Cruces Vice President Bruce Hartman during a public comment toward the end of the three-hour meeting. “This board really listens to the staff and the students. These are our elected officials and they are responsible to the stakeholders of our community. They’ve made a lot of hard decisions,” he said.
LCPS parent Glenn Landers said he supports the school board. Skandera’s charges, he said, are being made to stop the board from resolving “any problems facing the school district.” Using “misinformation supplied by the superintendent,” Skandera “parachutes in and stops it dead,” he said.
Las Cruces resident Dr. Earl Nissan said Las Cruces should demand a town hall meeting with Skandera. “She ought to be here as part of her duties to hold such a meeting,” he said.
“One of Secretary Skandera’s directives is for the Board to receive additional training on the Open Meetings Act,” said Jo Galvan, LCPS chief communications officer. “As soon as we get direction from the school board, we’ll assist in getting that training organized, possibly through the New Mexico School Boards’ Association or through the board’s attorney. It’s imperative for any elected official to understand the intricacies of this law.”