Documents acquired by The Taos News appear to further explain the reasons behind the withdrawal of the suspended Questa school board’s attorney and shed light on the state’s strategy for a related Dec. 10 hearing.
The hearing, initially set for Nov. 5 but continued to December, will give suspended board members the opportunity to respond to accusations made against them. State Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera suspended the authority of the board in September, citing conflicts of interest, micromanagement and other alleged violations.
The Cuddy and McCarthy Law Firm informed the Public Education Department (PED) Oct. 31 that it would no longer be representing the suspended board, though attorney John Kennedy, who signed the letter, did not explain the circumstances of the firm’s withdrawal. Suspended board president Bernie Torres told The Taos News the firm apparently found it “impossible” to represent the entire board, as it has been split into two antagonistic camps since the resignation of former member Urban Jaramillo earlier this year.
A letter obtained by The Taos News appears to confirm Torres’ statement. Also dated Oct. 31 and signed by Kennedy, the confidential letter to board members states it has become “increasingly evident” that the firm cannot effectively represent the board as a whole, “given the internal conflicts among opposing factions of the board.”
Kennedy wrote that he has “diligently attempted” to represent the board since an Oct. 9 meeting, but that he has since concluded that “no single law firm or attorney can represent the board as it is currently composed.”
“Individual attorneys could represent the opposing minority factions, should the board members choose to retain such attorneys,” he wrote.
Apparently, Kennedy anticipates fireworks at the Dec. 10 hearing.
“There is an obvious intent by members of the opposing factions to use the Nov. 5 hearing for the purpose of attacking, challenging or seeking to discredit the opposing faction members,” Kennedy’s letter states, later adding, “Given the clear motivations of the board members to attack each other personally and to insist that this firm use its representation of the board as a body at the upcoming hearing to do so creates an irreconcilable ethical dilemma and conflict of interest, which I cannot resolve in any fashion by continuing this representation.”
A PED staff report and witness lists shed light on the state’s approach to the upcoming hearing. Witness lists include current and former board members and superintendents, district staff, parents and PED staff. The staff report lays out recommendations on which charges to pursue.
Regarding allegations of board members exceeding their authority, including accusations that board members Matt Ortega, Daryl Ortega and Tammy Jaramillo pressured former superintendents to fire school personnel and that Matt Ortega interfered with construction projects and “has undertaken to not only harass district staff but to supervise their work to the point that he was banned from coming on campus,” PED staff recommends the cause for suspension proceed to the hearing.
Skandera’s Sept. 18 letter also cites board members’ having impeded the proper performance of the board and district as a cause for suspension. The staff report notes documentation, including affidavits and letters, that support the charge.
“The PED’s documentation clearly supports the conclusion that there has been and continues to be an ongoing and pervasive sense of disorder and dysfunction between and among board members,” the report states.
The report argues that the “totality of circumstances reveal a long-standing atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and a high level of disorder and dysfunction” and that the cause be pursued and proceed to the hearing. Among other points, the report states the district has had five interim superintendents since April 2011. It also argues that the board’s suggestion that it undergo further training is inadequate to address the problem.
The staff report recommends the following charges not be pursued at the hearing: violations of the Open Meetings Act, and a conflict of interest involving Daryl Ortega’s contract with the district.
The report recommends a seventh board member be appointed as soon as possible and that negotiations with the board commence. It notes that, while some of the board’s proposals for corrective action have merit, the board should also commit to addressing specific deficiencies, such as not interfering with school personnel or contractors.
“More importantly, 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,” it states.