In their response to the state Public Education Department (PED), suspended members of the Questa Independent School Board argue that the action was “unwarranted” and “constitutes an arbitrary and capricious action.”
In the notice of immediate suspension, dated Sept. 18, Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera cited incidents of board members fighting, harassing staff, exceeding their authority, violating the Open Meetings Act and engaging in conflicts of interest among her reasons for suspending the board. She gave the board until Oct. 18 to respond.
According to the board members’ response, signed by attorney John Kennedy, with the Cuddy and McCarthy Law Firm, “it is very clear that the educational process in Questa has not been impaired or halted” as a result of the board members’ actions. The response also describes the PED’s investigation as “one-sided” and incomplete.
The response attempts to refute allegations made in Skandera’s letter, starting with the claim that a persistent 3-3 split following the resignation of Urban “Bob” Jaramillo and difficulties in gathering a quorum for meetings prevented the district from conducting business and violated the board’s code of ethics, which requires board members to “work in harmony.”
In the board response, Kennedy places the blame for the split squarely on Skandera. He states that it is not unusual for “factions” to develop on school boards and argues that when the board could not come together to select a new member, Skandera should have appointed someone.
“Rather than performing this statutory duty, the Secretary-Designate now relies on the failure of the split board to complete board actions as a basis for immediate suspension of the board,” the response states. “Thus, the Secretary-Designate’s inaction has contributed to the inability of the Questa School Board to move forward.”
The PED received a number of sworn statements from staff members, former board members and others that made a variety of claims against board members Matt Ortega, Tammy Jaramillo and Daryl Ortega. Former superintendents Roy Herrera and Albert Martínez told the PED of instances when board members targeted school personnel or tried to get staff members fired; former board members Jaramillo and Robert Medina told similar stories.
However, according to the board members’ response, the claim “is not supported by substantial evidence.” The letter asserts that since Daryl Ortega’s appointment to the board, “there has been only one personnel issue in which the named board members (Ortega, Jaramillo and Ortega) have become involved.” According to the response, it had to do with a group that was being allowed to use school facilities and was purchasing lunches; the letter claims the board members only became involved to ensure school funds and facilities were being used properly and were adequately accounted-for.
The letter of suspension cites “chaotic” board meetings where security and police officers have been needed to keep order and instances when half the board has walked out of meetings as examples of issues “impeding the board’s proper performance.” The response argues that the “presence of school security or law enforcement officers at school board meetings across the state is not uncommon when controversial issues arise” and that boards losing a quorum to walkouts is also “not unusual.”
Many of the documents and statements provided to the PED take aim at Matt Ortega. Several recount an incident in which Ortega is said to have struck his own son on school property and harassed the high school principal when she reported it to the Children, Youth and Families Department.
According to the board’s response, Ortega “disagrees with and denies this allegation.” It also claims, as the incident is said to have occurred a full year ago, it is “too remote” to be used as grounds to suspend the board.
“An incident involving a single board member and his interaction with his son does not impair the educational process,” the response states.
Following the alleged incident, then-superintendent Albert Martínez wrote a letter to Ortega informing him that he was no longer allowed to contact school staff or enter school property. In his response to Martínez, Ortega objects to the “unprofessional and frankly bullish tone” of his letter and states that the accusations made against him are “false” and “politically driven.” Ortega argues that banning him from school property constitutes a violation of his civil rights.
According to the board’s response, Ortega’s ban from school property does not justify the suspension, either, “since it occurred a year ago.”
The letter of suspension cites a fistfight among board members, and multiple affidavits make reference to the fight, as well. In one sworn statement, Ortega was said to have gotten into a “shoving match” with Medina, and the confrontation “ended up in the parking lot, where fists flew.”
According to the response, however, the board members unanimously reject the claims of fistfights.
“That has never happened to the knowledge of any current board members,” the letter states.
The suspension letter cites several instances of board members interfering with construction projects in violation of state law, which gives board members no individual authority.
Among the examples noted is an occasion when Matt Ortega ordered “an electrical line belonging to the district dug up at his direction, which cost the district additional charges by contractors as well as the district’s legal counsel and a week’s delay in the education of the children at the affected school.”
Ortega has disputed this claim and the idea that the digging up of the electrical line, which was on the high school’s football field, delayed school. In an Oct. 8 email to The Taos News, Ortega wrote that he thought the electrical line was not sealed properly and presented a danger.
According to an email to the district from Lone Mountain Contracting, crews were at the high school March 22, 2011, working on a water line when Ortega approached them and ordered the electrical line dug up.
“(Ortega) advised that the school would be responsible for the costs associated with the excavation,” the email states.
District records show Lone Mountain issued an invoice for about $300 but later voided it. Records show district-retained attorneys also spent time on the issue, and the district was billed hundreds of dollars for it.
The board’s response again argues that the incident, which occurred in the spring of 2011, is “so remote” that it “does not constitute a basis for immediate suspension of the board’s powers.” However, it does state that board President Bernie Torres found the incident disruptive and costly to the district in terms of attorneys’ fees.
“(Torres) asserts that Matt Ortega’s intervention in this issue interfered with the school administration’s effort to have the party responsible for the original damage bear the cost of repair,” it states.
In the letter of suspension, the claim that board members’ interference in construction projects led to a school delay refers to the electrical line issue. However, the delay at Alta Vista Elementary at the beginning of this school year appears to have been caused following a change order to repair a gas pipe. According to the board’s response, “several board members” became involved in the project when they believed the change order should have resulted in a price decrease.
Interference in construction projects is also alleged in a March 22, 2011, letter held by the PED. In it, contractor Andamo Sánchez voids six months of contracts with the district of “any guarantee and/or warranty” due to the actions of Matt Ortega.
“Mr. Ortega has taken actions to undermine my work, to the extent that I have been forced to take legal action against him for his intrusive and disruptive behavior,” Sánchez wrote. “He has cast aspersions on my integrity, which can’t and won’t be tolerated.”
Board members’ contracts with the district are also at issue, with the PED claiming Daryl Ortega engaged in a conflict of interest Aug. 7 when minutes show he voted in favor of a waiver that would allow him to conduct work for the district even while he sat on the board. Ortega has denied voting on the matter, and a resolution provided to the PED along with the board’s response shows Ortega abstained.
The board’s response proposes a corrective action plan, though according to a footnote, “Board members Daryl Ortega and Matt Ortega insist that, because PED’s causes for disapproval are flawed and insufficient, the board should be reinstated without conditions.”
The corrective action plan includes trainings on the Open Meetings Act, board members’ proper roles, communication among the board, superintendent and other employees, conflict of interest laws and procurement code compliance. It also proposes audio or videotaping of board meetings, “close oversight and monitoring of board meetings and activities” by the PED and timelines for each step in the process.
The PED has been in negotiations with the board, and according to an Oct. 12 letter from the department, it has laid out the terms under which the dispute might be settled. They include:
• Matt Ortega would have to resign from the board, but he would not be prevented from running for the board in February’s election.
• The board would have to agree that there would be no retaliation or intimidation against teachers and school personnel by board members as a result of this proceeding.
• The board would have to agree that they would not interfere with the superintendent’s management of contractors hired by the district.
• Board members would have to agree not to contract with the district while sitting as a board member.
The board would also have to retain a “sergeant at arms” to assist in meetings, among other requirements. Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreement, board members would have to agree not to discuss the agreement publicly.
When The Taos News requested the letter from the PED, the request was declined, with the department citing attorney-client privilege. However, it was provided to a reporter anonymously last week. The PED declined to authenticate the letter and would only confirm that the PED is in negotiations with the board.
If the PED and board cannot reach an agreement beforehand, a public hearing regarding the suspension will be held in Taos, Nov. 5.