A chasm is growing between those who support the direction of the Peñasco Independent School District Superintendent Lisa Hamilton and the current school board – and those who don't.
That was evident on Monday evening (Sept. 14) when members from the community of Peñasco – and also from the American Federation of Teachers-Peñasco – held a town hall to address the issues they say are pressing.
A panelist of five members from the community – a former school board member, a former student, as well as former district workers – laid out their issues with the school board and Hamilton over the course of a little more than an hour and in front of a Zoom crowd that reached nearly 90 people at its peak.
The town hall was moderated by Rafa Tarin, an artist in the community.
Some of the concerns raised included transparency – many agreed that neither the board nor the superintendent has been clear when it comes to hiring/firing practices and other decisions being made in the district.
Rosie Dominguez, a social worker who has had 17 years in education and who grew up in Peñasco and graduated from the high school, said she knew "she had to agree to be on this panel" when the school board didn't respond to a petition to reinstate former Peñasco Middle/High School Principal Marina Lopez, whom she had worked under.
"To me, the best way to think about transparency is those [face] shields," Dominguez said. "That's transparency – you can see what's on the other side. We should be able to see and know – there should be no secrets, these are our children."
Dominic Lopez, a graduate from Peñasco this spring, said that the superintendent had never made it a point to meet students in the district last year. He mentioned that she only showed up to sporting events for publicity purposes. That, to him, showed that she didn't fully support the district.
Miguelanjel Burns, a former teacher in the district and the president of the local teachers union, said that Hamilton has only divided the community since she took the job.
"When we brought the community to stand with us, she brought the community to stand against us," Burns said. "When we wrote 28 letters to the board last year, she went and asked staff to writer letters of support," Burns said. "When we spoke out at board meetings, she asked staff who wrote her letters to speak for her."
Dominguez said it is unethical for a superintendent to ask for letters of support.
"The bigger issue for me is that the superintendent was asking for support," Dominguez said. "To me, it's unethical and a misuse of her power. How would a teacher say 'No, I am not going to write you a letter of support,' knowing that the superintendent has the power to hire or fire?"
Leroy Lopez, a former school board member and a panelist in the Sept. 14 town hall, asked: "Is the board working for the superintendent or is the superintendent working for the board?"
Lopez said that the board is being influenced by Hamilton's actions – which he said has led to division in the district and community at large.
"Right now they are divided - they are not working together," Lopez said.
Lopez was replaced last fall after losing his school board seat in an election to Carlos Abeyta, a former teacher at the high school and PISD superintendent.
Dominguez said that a liaison between the community and the school board might help with easing tension in the district. It's something she's seen at schools in the past.
"That person reports to the board with confidentiality of those people that come and speak to them," Rodriguez said. "And it becomes, 'How do we fix it? instead of 'Who said that?' type of thing."
Burns added that "the community is who holds the board accountable."
Burns earlier this year was one of the leaders in petitioning against the reversal of Hamilton's contract – and had even pleaded with the school board for them to not renew it.
Annette Sanchez, a retired secretary in the district, said that she wants to see positive movement in the district and, she added, that starts with the school board.
"We have a right to be informed and we have a right for our voices to be heard as well," Sanchez said.
Tarin said that public comment has been an issue at past board meetings.
"What I hear when board meetings are happening is that people come on there in public comment and they get cut off," Tarin said, before asking the panelists how the board can better handle public comment. "They are either ignored, shut down, silenced or threatened with defamation. And that's not a way to treat people who have views to express to the body that is supposed to be listening to what their views are."
Lopez mentioned that there is a 30-minute time limit for public comment, and, depending on how many people want to speak, time will be allocated. But, he said, recently the board has limited how long those in the community can speak, even if it is a single person who wants to do so.
"If there is only one individual [who wants to speak] – why not give him the whole 30 minutes?" Lopez asked.
Hamilton has denied that, however, and said that there is a grievance process in which those from the community can voice their concerns at a school board meeting. She said, to date, nobody has done it the correct way.
The school board responds
Amanda Bissell, the school board president, said that the board isn't divided and that they work as a unified team when making decisions but that sometimes their opinions differ on issues.
"The board governs with one voice, we work to reach consensus when we can," Bissell said. "However, we are different individuals each with our own experiences and ties to the community, and this does show up from time to time when we need to vote or take action on school district business."
When the town hall panel had accused the school board of not taking action on the 16 staffers who they said were forced out by Hamilton, Bissell said that it isn't their job to take action in a case such as that.
"Although I understand that some in the community are disappointed in the board's lack of action, we are operating within our roles," Bissell said. "School boards have a limited scope, that can be summed up into three main categories: hiring and firing the superintendent [and] setting their salary; developing policy; and reviewing and approving the district's budget."
She continued: "It is not in the scope or power of the board to interfere with personnel matters. Personnel matters are an administrative function, and fall under the purview of the superintendent, by law. Prior to this, school boards had a lot of power in who was hired and fired, which led in some cases to nepotism."
Some in the community raised concerns about the rollout of online learning for the district in lieu of in-person classes. "There wasn't real clear direction on the website," Dominguez said about trying to plan for the new school year in the Peñasco district. "We didn't know what to do."
Her daughter was marked absent from classes despite not knowing what classes she was in.
"It comes down to poor leadership," she said. "It was different this year – it was a virtual learning plan. It wasn't like they were going into the school and they were gonna give them their schedules – or they knew who their teacher was. We knew none of that."
Burns said some teachers weren't ready for the school year, and didn't know when orientation for the new school year began until "the night before."
Hamilton, though, says she's doing everything she can for the district.
She mentioned grants she has secured, such as the implementation grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department – in which PISD received the max of $150,000. The elementary school was also awarded $50,000 for the planning grant handed out by the state.
But she also understands the current divide between those who support her and those who don't. To fix that, she said that there needs to be a "balanced conversation."
"I feel like there are two sides and I really feel that it is important for there to be a dialogue," Hamilton said. "I know there are people who are very excited about the improvements that have been made and the support families are receiving from the district."
She said meetings are sometimes held where members of the community can listen in on what's happening in the school district. She said that those who have concerns can even email PISD.
Members of the town hall panel claimed Hamilton had forced teachers out – 16 to be exact – which Hamilton denies.
She said that of those 16, most weren't in fact teaching staff who had been let go, but were employees in the custodial department, the cafeteria and educational assistants.
"They were not all educators – that is not correct," Hamilton said. "We had some cooks leave. … the education part didn't apply to those other positions."
She said that she isn't able to discuss those who were let go because of "personnel matters."
"Case in point, well, you can say well, 'She's forced people out to retire.' I don't have any interaction with staff that the majority of the staff… they have supervisors and I'm not their direct supervisor. I supervise their supervisor."
Many in the school district had been angered in early June as they learned that former Peñasco Middle/High School Principal Marina Lopez was reassigned by the superintendent to a fourth-grade teaching position.
Hamilton, however, said she wouldn't speak further on the matter, saying that it was a "personnel matter."
Over 500 supporters signed a petition in June asking for the reinstatement of Lopez, though she hasn't resumed that position.
This story has been updated to reflect Rafa Tarin's position as an artist in Peñasco and not a former teacher. The Taos News regrets this error.