The state Public Education Department (PED) has suspended the authority of the Questa school board, citing harassment, micromanagement, conflicts of interest and even fistfights.
According to a letter sent to the board Tuesday (Sept. 18), the PED found the board’s failures to meet the requirements of law, standards or rules “sufficiently severe and numerous as to give reason to warrant an immediate suspension of the authority of the board unless or until the failures are corrected.”
The PED has appointed Deputy Secretary Paul Aguilar to serve in place of the board pending a written response and public hearing to be held Nov. 5.
According to the PED letter, board members Matt Ortega, Daryl Ortega and Tammy Jaramillo exceeded their authority by “(pressuring) former superintendents to fire school personnel.”
“The PED has also been informed that Matt Ortega struck his own son in the parking lot of the school and harassed the principal, Valerie Trujillo, for reporting it to authorities,” the letter states. “Statements and other documents inform the PED that Matt Ortega has undertaken to not only harass district staff but to supervise their work to the point that he was banned from coming on campus.”
The letter also notes that emails and notarized statements from staff indicate Ortega “had 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 children at the affected school.”
In an email to The Taos News, Ortega said he was elected to represent the best interests of Questa’s children.
“These allegations are blatantly false and without a doubt, the allegations are politically motivated and politically driven,” he wrote. “This is clearly retaliation on me as a board member due to my fulfilling of my fiduciary obligations and responsibilities as a board member. I was entrusted by the voters of the Questa School District to bring accountability into our school district, and I will continue to do so.”
According to the letter, board member Daryl Ortega contracted with the district to provide plumbing and electrical services prior to becoming a member but failed to recuse himself from a vote in favor of “a resolution that directly affected his own economic interests.”
Daryl Ortega said the minutes are incorrect and claims he did recuse himself from the vote; a recording of the meeting was not available as of press time. He called the investigation “one-sided.”
“We were never asked any of these questions,” he said.
In an email to The Taos News Wednesday (Sept. 19), Jaramillo wrote that she sees the PED action as “political misdirection.” She said it is the board’s job to improve education in the district and ensure contractors are doing quality work.
“Staff needs to be held accountable and so does the contractors — of course they will be misdirecting the truth and state half truths or just down outright lie,” she wrote.
Jaramillo said she believes the Questa district has a good staff and should be putting all its energy into bringing up school grades, increasing enrollment and ensuring the schools are in good shape to give students a better education.
The PED alleges a violation of the Open Meetings Act occurred when the board entered executive session and three board members accused a former superintendent of engaging in immoral activity, and one board member accused another of “engaging in inappropriate activities with one of the district’s teachers.”
“While ‘limited personnel matters’ may be discussed in executive session under the Open Meetings Act, the discussions described violated the Act since only those subjects announced or voted upon prior to closure by the board may be discussed in a closed meeting,” the letter states.
The PED was also informed, according to the letter, of “chaotic” board meetings that have required the presence of security and police officers, and that the board has failed to take actions on items that require board approval, “such as paying bills and assigning teacherages,” thereby preventing the superintendent from carrying out his duties.
“Fistfights have occurred between board members at board meetings,” the letter states. “Board meetings have ended without proper adjournment due to board members walking out of the meeting because of heated disputes between members. Staff members reported that during board meetings, board members publicly accused them of being involved in immoral or illegal activities.”
A PED spokesman declined to comment further on the matter.
Referring to the “pretty heavy allegations” made in the letter, board President Bernie Torres said he has been in touch with state agencies regarding a plan for improvement.
“This micromanagement just has to stop,” he said. “As of yesterday, we’re not a board ... In my opinion, for the wrongdoings of three, we all got thrown under the bus.”
The board has until Oct. 18 to submit a written statement and supporting documentation stating why a suspension should not be imposed. A public hearing in Taos will follow Nov. 5.