Based on testimony given at a Dec. 19 appeal hearing in Taos, independent hearing officer John Ziegler found that the Public Education Department was justified in suspending the Questa school board's authority from Nov. 12 until Jan. 1.

Ziegler noted in his findings, which were released by PED Dec. 23, that the two board members who had requested the hearing, Daryl Ortega and Ellis Garcia, had been notified in timely fashion of the hearing date and been provided with a witness list and other pertinent documents.

In their opening statement, Ortega and Garcia had denied receiving such documents prior to the hearing. The first 40 minutes of the hearing was marked by contentious exchanges between the two board members and PED Chief Deputy Counsel Aaron Rodriguez, who presented the state's case for upholding the suspension.

At that point, Ortega and Garcia stormed out of the meeting in protest.

Accusations fly

Using the 20 minutes they were allotted for opening arguments, Ortega and Garcia also said that the suspension was orchestrated as a vendetta by friends of fellow board member Tammy Jaramillo, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas. Ortega and Jaramillo have often had emotionally charged disagreements during board meetings.

"It's obvious that the board was suspended as a political power trip on the part of certain individuals because there were wrongdoings reported," said Ortega.

He went on to describe the "wrongdoings" - allegations that board member Jaramillo; her husband, Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo; and Bernie Torres, a former Questa school board president and member of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative board, had offered board member Garcia money and political favors to vote against closing Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, a tiny but high-performing elementary school in Costilla that falls within the Questa district. Garcia voted to close the school along with Ortega and another board member, Mathew Ortega, to create a 3-2 majority during a heated Aug. 13 board meeting.

Ortega also mentioned an investigation of these allegations that had been approved by the same 3-2 majority and overseen by the school district's counsel, Samantha Adams. He asked that the private investigator's report be submitted as evidence.

At this point, Ziegler admonished Ortega to focus on the issue at hand - the school board's suspension and whether it should be allowed to stand.

Ortega claimed that PED had made it impossible for the suspended board to have legal representation because Adams, who he said had offered to represent them without pay, was in court that day and could not be present at the hearing.

Stormy hearing

Rodriguez called the first witness for the state, Elizabeth Cassel, who works as a complaint monitor for PED's Bureau of Special Education. She mentioned that during her brief tenure in that role, the Questa district had been assigned six corrective action plans for failing to meet students' special education needs.

Cassel specifically mentioned the most recent corrective action plan, issued Aug. 1 of this year, which included 23 separate steps. "That's unusual," she said. "Most of the CAPs I deal with are anywhere from two to seven steps, averaging three to four steps."

"I'm seeing the same things repeated over and over again in this school district," Cassel continued. "I'm seeing services provided to one student [in response to a CAP] and then the same complaints coming from other parents. So the issue may have been resolved with one student, but then it erupts with other students. That points to more of a systemic problem."

When Rodriguez asked the hearing officer to admit the corrective action plan as Exhibit A, Ortega voiced another objection. "We've never received this document," said Ortega, "so we've had no chance to review the evidence. Are you expecting us to read over it right now and question the witness about it?"

Rodriguez asked Ortega to take the stand as a witness and testify under oath that he had not received any of the documents sent to him. Ortega declined.

Ziegler told Rodriguez to continue with his questioning of the witness, which prompted further outcries from the two board members.

"We're not going to stand for this," said Ortega. "There are two lawyers here representing the state, getting paid with taxpayers' money. They have powerful people on their side, including a governor and an attorney general as well as Secretary [of Education Ryan] Stewart. We're just regular citizens - and we're getting railroaded."

Garcia added, "This dog and pony show is over," as he and Ortega abruptly left the hearing.

'Major deficiencies'

However, Ziegler, an Albuquerque attorney appointed by the state Public Education Department as a neutral third party to oversee the proceedings, advised the state's counsel to proceed with the hearing as planned.

Rodriguez called more expert witnesses from PED to corroborate the three "major deficiencies" cited by Secretary Stewart in his Nov. 12 suspension order: unstable leadership, chronic failure to accommodate students with disabilities and multiple violations of New Mexico's Open Meetings Act.

Gabriel Baca, deputy director of Title 1 programs at PED, went into detail to show how the district's instability of leadership had affected its access to full funding under Title 1. (Title 1, the largest federally funded educational program, provides supplemental funds to school districts with large concentrations of students from low-income families to help meet educational goals.)

Baca said that a district has 12 months to use Title 1 funds once they've been allocated and that the Questa district has lost out on significant portions of its allocation over the last two academic years. "If you don't explain your need for the funds or how you intend to use them," he said, "they revert."

In other words, the district loses them. Baca said that $22,000 had reverted for the 2018-19 school year alone.

'Improper conduct'

Rodriguez also called board members Jaramillo and Jose Lovato. Both described several instances of improper conduct on the part of board president Ortega, including unilateral actions taken without full board approval, intrusive micromanagement of daily school district operations, bullying of superintendents as well as fellow board members.

"If I disagreed with Mr. Ortega, he would treat me in a demeaning way," said Jaramillo. "Also, most of the motions at the meetings were made by the board president [Ortega]. So he made it very clear how he expected things to proceed."

Board member Lovato said that Ortega and former superintendent Michael Lovato had appeared to be "grooming" Questa High School principal Cathy Gallegos to take over the superintendent's position when Michael Lovato resigned in September of this year. "I thought it was really odd that Mr. Ortega made Ms. Gallegos [who is serving as interim superintendent] the gatekeeper for the hiring process, even though she's one of the candidates. When I asked to see a copy of her résumé, they never sent it."

In closing, the PED counsel summarized the case for allowing the suspension to stand: the "constant churn" of superintendents, of whom the Questa district has seen three permanent hires and four interim appointments during the last two and a half years; chronic failure to meet the needs of special education students or respond to corrective action plans; failure to hire a special education director or coordinator; failure to meet Title 1 requirements or properly spend Title 1 funds; and failure to properly administer federal reading achievement and math programs.

PED also cited instability and conflict within the board itself: micromanagement of day-to-day district operations by Ortega and other board members; improperly written and posted board meeting agendas that violated the Open Meetings Act; unethical practices in the hiring of superintendents; unilateral actions taken by individual board members without knowledge or approval of the full board; and highly contentious, often chaotic deliberations over closure of the Río Costilla school.

The hearing adjourned at 2:30 p.m. after three and a half hours of testimony.

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