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State issues notice of breach to Alma d'Arte


The state Public Education Commission voted unanimously on Friday that Alma d’Arte Charter High School was in breach of its charter, following a lengthy meeting addressing numerous concerns with respect to governance, financial oversight, academic performance (particularly in math and science), poor attendance and the school’s relations with students and their families. 

All seven members present approved the resolution for a notice of breach of contract to Alma d’Arte, calling on its leadership “to re-establish a respectful, safe and effective learning environment at the school.”

The notice of breach is a formal step in an intervention process to assist struggling charter schools and keep them on track for renewal of their authorizations. 

The school's principal, Adam Amador, sat next to the school’s board president, Richelle Peugh-Swafford, in front of the commissioners over an hours-long discussion in Santa Fe. The PEC is a 10-member elected body authorizing and overseeing state-chartered public schools. 

Alma d’Arte, founded in 2004, was founded as an arts-integration secondary school, housed on the former Court Junior High School campus near downtown Las Cruces. Its current charter is in effect through 2027.

The meeting examined the school’s annual report by the Charter Schools Division and an array of past concerns and corrective actions by the school pertaining to financial audit findings, policies and procedures, chronic absenteeism, special education and other services. 

The school’s communication with families and lack of a current grievance policy ensuring their right to raise concerns and enter complaints, was also a topic of discussion, including a recent decision to end public comment at public meetings of its governance council. 

Amador, in his first year as principal — its third in as many years — said he inherited disorder with important policies outdated, financial disarray and chronic absenteeism while some students who did attend were focused on art and not on academics. He pledged transparency in his efforts to turn around the school’s academic performance, push for updated policies and bring the school into consistent compliance with its charter and state requirements.

Friday’s process was not sudden: The Charter School Division as well as the Public Education Department had engaged with the school over a number of issues, and much of the meeting detailed responses the school had made, including progress in some areas and some areas where more or clearer documentation of its actions was desired.

“My priorities are getting the ship righted right now,” Amador told the commissioners, “and it’s a lot of work that we don’t have staff for, so we’re doing it one piece at a time as quickly as we can.” 

Adding to the stress on the school community has been rapid turnover of the school’s governing board, which assumes the responsibilities of a school board for the charter school and supervises its head administrator. At its April 15 meeting, they accepted the latest in a string of resignations from the board, this time by Ron Fitzherbert. Three of the board’s current six members joined the board just last month. 

Commissioners also noted staff dismissals during the school year as a factor in the current turmoil on campus. 

Commissioner Timothy Beck of Santa Fe wondered whether student absenteeism was a message.

“It appears the kids don’t want to come to school … there’s got to be a reason they don’t want to come.” 

Meanwhile, the PEC’s chair, Patricia Gipson of Las Cruces, said the school had not provided documentation it had promised to show the steps they took prior to disenrolling students. Additionally, the CSD recommended a financial corrective action plan as a way to watch the process and assure follow-through by the school.

Public input and community relations

Gipson directed some of her criticism to the school’s governing board, arguing that a practice of reviewing and updating policies on a regular basis should have been in effect and the failure to do so was now falling on Amador: “It’s not his job to be working on this. It was the job of the board to already have that.” 

In particular, Gipson faulted the school’s lack of a grievance policy for students and families that assured their rights: “This is people’s voices that aren’t being heard. They’re being dismissed. I don’t care if it’s one parent or 100 parents — but everyone has as right to be acknowledged and to be responded to.”

Commissioner Alan Lee Brauer Jr. of Santa Fe noted public input at the start of Friday’s meeting from parents who had traveled from Las Cruces to address commissioners with concerns about the school’s leadership, as well as the formation of a local “Save Alma” group. Brauer suggested Amador should be seeking meetings with the group and to improve relationships with the community: “It’s not about being right, it’s about problem-solving. It’s about hearing somebody and addressing the need before it gets on fire.”

Alma d’Arte’s recent decision to end public comments at governance council meetings was mentioned by a few commissioners. The action followed a meeting in March where a former student used an expletive and insulted Amador from the podium, prompting the principal’s wife to call police. 

The next meeting, on April 15, excluded public comment from the agenda, a move that was protested by some members of the audience, who stomped on the floor during Amador’s presentation. The meeting also introduced the presence of private security guards who insisted members of the public sign in with their names to be admitted.

After a governing board meeting on April 15, Alma d’Arte principal Adam Amador looks through the front entrance window as members of the public congregate outside.
After a governing board meeting on April 15, Alma d’Arte principal Adam Amador looks through the front entrance window as members of the public …

The Open Meetings Act does not require a forum for public comment, but Gipson said allowing some venue for community input — even if it was separate from the business meetings, perhaps online — made for “better informed” policy.

“That goes back to respect,” Beck added. “Respect for other people’s opinions, other people’s voices, other people’s ideas.” 

Amador countered by saying some ideas and voices were being suppressed by bad behavior and bullying and that the board needed to establish rules of decorum at business meetings. “I’ve asked the board, do not put open comment until a time that the public can behave in a manner becoming of an educational setting,” he said.

Even so, Commissioner Michael Taylor of Roswell asked Amador, “What message does that send? … How are you handling the messaging and communication to those who serve and the people of the community? That’s what I think you need to do better, honestly.”

Acknowledging that Amador inherited a large number of outstanding problems, Taylor urged him to engage with community members upset about the state of the school and exhibit “an earnest desire and respect for the people we serve.” 

School to report to PEC in June

The resolution to issue a notice of breach encompassed a list of charter provisions and other concerns pertaining to academic progress, governance and financial oversight, plans for handling student and parent complaints, admission and enrollment policies, and compliance with legal requirements for special education services and attendance.

The resolution also calls on the school to report to the PEC’s June meeting on its academic progress.

Just before the vote, Commissioner Steven Carrillo of Santa Fe echoed some of his colleagues in saying the action was about serving youth.

“We’re ensuring that any child and family that attends Alma has a certain culture at the school that they need: It’s safe, and then they can learn. Everything is set up for them to learn on every level. That's what we're doing for kids today.”

Alma d'Arte, charter schools, Public Education Commission, open meetings