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Alma d'Arte responds to breach notice in stormy meeting


The governing board of Alma d’Arte Charter High School convened a special meeting on April 25, responding to the state Public Education Commission’s formal notice that the school is in breach of the charter authorizing its operation as a public school.

The board continued to require that anyone attending the meeting sign their names on an attendance sheet, in addition to a separate sign-in sheet to give public comment. At the previous meeting, public comment was not permitted, following an incident in which a former student cursed while insulting the school’s principal, prompting a police response.

Public comment was restored Thursday following the PEC’s April 16 meeting where commissioners urged the board’s president, Richelle Peugh-Swafford, and principal Adam Amador to reach out to the community, listen to their concerns and criticisms and seek healing. 

The board responded by allowing public comments at the April 25 meeting, once the board approved a new policy detailing acceptable behaviors at public meetings. The public comment decorum policy was approved unanimously after its first reading — and with no opportunity for comments or suggestions from the community. 

At the Las Cruces Public Schools, for instance, policies are reviewed by the school board over a series of public sessions allowing for public input before action is taken. 

Peugh-Swafford read the draft policy aloud, saying it sought to balance the “privilege” of speaking at public meetings with the need for the board to conduct business in an orderly manner and to provide a safe environment for people with differing opinions. 

Many details of the policy are similar to conventions at public meetings of other public bodies, including limits on speaking time and discouraging attempts to engage the board in questions and answers. The policy also states that the board will listen to comments without engaging in discussion, particularly on non-agenda items. 

The policy also enumerates punitive measures for disruptions of meetings, from recessing or adjourning meetings to individuals being asked to leave. It even raises the prospect of criminal charges.

This did not go over well with those who had signed up to offer public comments at that meeting. One current student told the board, “You are policing us.”

Among the speakers was Janet van Coblijn, who said she had been served with notice from Amador that she was not permitted on campus in a letter that accused her of bullying students and families and harassing staff when her son was enrolled at the school. She said the accusations were false. 

Some speakers called for resignations, either of Amador or the governing board itself, which supervises the school’s chief officer. Others called for more transparency and dialogue on the school’s part. Anthony, N.M. city councilor Gabriel Holguin, a 2018 graduate of Alma and former board member, even suggested a state takeover of the school. 

“Charter schools have many, many good things that outweigh the district public schools,” Gilbert Gutierrez, a former principal of La Academia Dolores Huerta, said at the podium. “It’s obvious you are not inviting your community to (take) part. They have no trust in you or the administration. … Please, do your part so this school can keep going.” 

Amador said the school was finalizing required testing procedures for reporting to the state, following lagging academic performance during the 2022-23 school year, before he arrived at the school. He reported on immediate progress responding to the notice of breach and presenting corrective actions to the PEC when they appear before the body again in June. He also said he was responding to complaints that had been presented directly to the PEC, in some cases with documentation rebutting claims.

The board also approved a policy for handling grievances from students and their families, with the intent of resolving issues at the lowest administrative level possible. The policy was passed unanimously after its first public reading, even as people in attendance called out with questions about the policy, in particular how complaints would be handled if they involved Amador himself. 

The principal, approaching the end of his first school year at Alma, presented a procedure for handling disciplinary actions involving students eligible for special education services, which he said mirrors policies used at other institutions as well as federal and state requirements. He presented it as a draft policy he intended to modify later. The board approved it, with Kimberly Skaggs the single board member voting nay. 

It isn’t clear why the board approved draft policies intended to be revised in the near future. The Bulletin reached out to Peugh-Swafford and Amador to ask, but they did not respond. 

As its last action for the night, the board approved spending up to $5,000 for technology required to allow for live-streaming meetings and public participation by video conference, in preparation for an upcoming legal deadline for public meetings to be accessible remotely. 

Alma d'arte Charter High School, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Public Education Commission