Peñasco Independent Schools superintendent Lisa Hamilton dismissed Marina Lopez from her position as Peñasco High School and Middle School principal on Monday (June 1) and offered her a lesser position.

The report was confirmed by school board president Amanda Bissell in a June 2 phone interview. Bissell said Hamilton had informed her of her action via email.

"I absolutely did not terminate Ms. Lopez," Hamilton said in a June 2 phone interview. "Beyond that, I can't give you any more details, as this is a personnel matter."

According to a petition requesting Lopez's reinstatement that has been circulated among staff and community members, Lopez has been offered a position as fourth-grade teacher at the elementary school.

In a June 3 phone interview, Lopez confirmed that Hamilton had informed her of the decision Friday evening (May 29) via email. She said she didn't feel comfortable sharing details but expressed surprise that the superintendent had informed her via email rather than in a personal meeting.

Lopez said she hadn't decided whether to accept the teaching position, but that Hamilton had given her until Friday (June 5) to make a decision.

Does she have any recourse? "I'm currently looking at all avenues before I make a decision on how to proceed," she said.

Lopez mentioned that she started as assistant principal under principal Marvin McAuley five years ago and has served as principal for four years. Under McAuley's mentorship, she was accepted into and graduated from the Public Education Department's "Principals Pursuing Excellence" program.

Board president Bissell had received a copy of the petition submitted to Hamilton and forwarded it to Taos News. Signed by 100 teachers, community members and students, though not independently verified, it "respectfully requested" Lopez's reinstatement, based on her professionalism, respectful demeanor toward staff and the improvement of both the middle and high school's performance ratings during her tenure.

"Mrs. Lopez is dedicated and extremely valuable to the Peñasco Independent School District and to her community," the petition reads. "The reassignment of Ms. Lopez from principal to a fourth-grade elementary teacher is disagreeable and questionable."

"Under the leadership of Marina Lopez, the overall school grade for both the middle and high school locations increased," the petition continues. "The Peñasco Middle School went from a 'D' school to an 'A' school and received recognition from the Public Education Department, to which Mrs. Lopez undoubtedly played an instrumental role by guiding her staff and students to reaching and maintaining this goal.

"She is admired and respected by her colleagues for her excellent communication skills, transparency, for consistently maintaining her composure regardless of the situation, but most importantly for always treating others with respect and for creating a positive and conducive work environment for staff and students alike."

Lopez said she had only just learned of the petition effort when a community member texted her to say she had added her signature and hoped that it helped.

"I only have 160 students on average between the middle and high schools," she said. "So that number of supporters [420] is pretty amazing in this size of community. It's humbling, I can tell you that."

Four teachers let go as well

Bissell also confirmed that Hamilton had declined to renew the contracts of four district staff members, including elementary school teachers Miguelangel Burns and Deborah Anglada and middle school teacher Valerie Bemis.

Brandon Gurule, who coaches the boys' high school basketball team and serves as PHS athletic director, was not renewed for either post but was offered a lesser position as teacher, which he reportedly accepted.

Hamilton acknowledged that she had opted not to renew the four teachers' contracts. She noted, however, that none of the four had achieved tenured status and that she had fully complied with New Mexico law.

Hamilton cited the procedure for notifying teachers of renewal or dismissal as spelled out in state law. She added that, if any of the four had achieved tenure, she would have followed a different procedure and the teachers would have had recourse to protest her decision.

Another round of turmoil?

Hamilton's decision has reignited controversy surrounding the embattled superintendent, who has incurred the wrath of more than a few teachers and community members in the district since her hire in July 2019.

It remains unclear how much of the animosity stems from Hamilton's policies and management style and how much is based simply on her status as a non-Hispanic outsider coming into a small, tightly knit, mostly Hispanic community and attempting to effect change in a district known for resisting it.

Earlier this year, at a volatile March 4 board meeting, approximately 15 district teachers spoke out adamantly during the public comment period against renewing Hamilton's contract, citing her disrespectful manner toward staff and autocratic, "my way or the highway" approach to her job.

Following a marathon four-hour executive session during the meeting, the five board members emerged to report that they had decided not to renew Hamilton's contract for the 2020-2021 school year.

However, board president Bissell subsequently admitted they had not adhered to New Mexico's Open Meetings Act, which stipulates that they must vote publicly on such actions. She then scheduled a second special meeting on March 9, where numerous teachers and community members again voiced shrill opinions both for and against Hamilton.

Following another executive session, the board voted 3-2 to reverse its decision and renew Hamilton's contract. After the meeting was adjourned, New Mexico president of the American Federation of Teachers union Stephanie Ly rallied the anti-Hamilton faction, vowing to keep fighting the contract renewal.

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