In another round of conflict involving the troubled Questa Independent Schools District, board member Tammy Jaramillo squared off with board president Daryl …
In another round of conflict involving the troubled Questa Independent Schools District, board member Tammy Jaramillo squared off with board president Daryl Ortega and soon-to-be ex-superintendent Michael Lovato at a Friday (Sept. 13) board meeting.
“It’s a little disappointing that we get good superintendents in here and seem to run them off,” said Ortega, “with things that aren’t even of interest of [sic] the district or kids. It’s personal issues.”
By “personal issues,” Ortega referred to Jaramillo’s allegations that Lovato has frequently made use of a district-owned vehicle for personal travel in violation of district policy. She has also raised questions about Lovato’s overstepping of his authority in dealing with vendors and his alleged habit of holding meetings with “the board” that included only board president Ortega and board member Mathew Ortega.
Jaramillo voiced other objections throughout the meeting. First, she questioned the board’s decision to grant Lovato’s request that he be allowed to depart his position on Sept. 20, despite the stipulation in his contract that he stay for 30 days following his Sept. 4 resignation.
Ortega told Jaramillo that the board has the authority to release Lovato whenever it chooses despite the 30-day stipulation – a week or even a day following his resignation.
“I’m not happy that I have to leave, but I have made that decision,” said Lovato in response to the two Ortegas’ expressions of disappointment. “It’s hard to have people taking pictures ... stalking, and you know, there are decisions that I have to make for my family.”
According to Jaramillo, she had merely taken photos to document her claims that Lovato has been driving the district’s late-model Chevy Tahoe during off-business hours to Santa Fe and other destinations that clearly had nothing to do with district business.
Ortega seemed barely able to contain his vexation toward Jaramillo, often addressing her in an impatient tone and reacting with visible exasperation to her comments while clicking a ballpoint pen relentlessly as she spoke.
“I’m going to continue my questioning,” said Jaramillo, “in spite of the bullying and efforts to crucify me. We are not being transparent in what we’re doing here.”
In a Sept. 6 phone interview with the Taos News, Lovato had stated his intention to honor the 30-day clause in his contract and stay until Oct. 3 to assist with the transition to an interim superintendent. However, he said at the Sept. 13 meeting that he wanted to depart earlier because of the “hostile work environment” created by what he called Jaramillo’s “personal attacks.”
Jaramillo asked Lovato, “So am I correct in understanding that you’re leaving because of me? It doesn’t have anything to do with your accepting a more attractive job offer elsewhere?”
Lovato replied, “You don’t deserve that much credit, Ms. Jaramillo. But yes, it all started with that … with your unethical harassment, which is unacceptable.”
When Jaramillo pressed him further about the use of the district vehicle for personal travel, Lovato cut her off and talked over her. “Again we continue with false allegations,” he said. “Ms. Jaramillo, leave me out of your false allegations. It’s not acceptable, it’s unethical on your part, and I ask that you stop.”
Ortega spoke on behalf of Lovato, adding, “The reason for his quick departure is he feels there’s a hostile work environment. We don’t need to end up in another lawsuit. Here we are today with more allegations and more accusations toward him, and I think it’s in the best interests of the district that he wants to leave. He doesn’t want to be pursued, photographed, checked on as if he was a child. So, that’s the reason for the quick departure.”
In mentioning “another lawsuit,” Ortega referred to pending litigation brought by LeAnne Salazar, the former superintendent, for breach of contract. Salazar was terminated by the board in January 2019, which led to Lovato’s hiring the following month.
When asked by board president Ortega, Lovato affirmed that he could adequately transition the district to an interim superintendent by the early-departure date of Sept. 20 he had requested. Lovato recommended that high school principal Kathy Gallegos serve as interim superintendent.
When Ortega moved to approve Gallegos as interim superintendent, and board member Ortega seconded, Jaramillo objected. “There was no mention of selecting an interim on the agenda for this meeting,” she said. (By law, all business transacted at a school board meeting has to be listed on the agenda, which must be posted 72 hours prior to the meeting.)
During discussion of the motion before the vote, board member and secretary Jose Lovato voiced concern that Gallegos would have more than she could handle trying to cover the duties of both high school principal and acting superintendent.
Gallegos said she could carry out the duties of both jobs. “I have a very well-organized staff that communicates well,” she added. “We’re all on the same page.”
Lovato assured the board that he would make himself available to Gallegos, if the board approved her, at any time in the future – “whether it be a month or a year from now” – to support her as interim superintendent. He added that he had no intention of hurting the Questa district by his actions and would do anything within his power to ensure the success of the teachers and students.
Ortega directed Lovato to post an announcement of the vacancy immediately on the New Mexico Regional Education Applicant Placement website and on similar educational job boards in adjacent states.
The vote went in favor of approving Gallegos as interim superintendent, with the two Ortegas and Ellis Garcia voting to approve. Jaramillo and Jose Lovato voted against.
Behind closed doors
Board president Ortega then asked that spectators clear the room so the board could go into closed executive session. According to the agenda, the executive session would discuss opening an “investigation,” but it did not identify a target or topic of the investigation.
When asked in a phone interview with the Taos News to provide details of the investigation, board president Ortega said simply, “I cannot,” before hanging up abruptly.
It remains unclear whether Lovato sought other employment because of Jaramillo’s alleged harassment or simply received a better offer elsewhere. Joel Boyd, superintendent of Lowell, Massachusetts, Public Schools, offered Lovato the position of director of special education services at an annual salary of $130,000. Lovato had served under Boyd when the latter was superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools from 2012-16.
Lovato had not responded by press time to a phone request from the Taos News for details of Jaramillo’s alleged harassment of him.
In a Sept. 4 interview with the Lowell Sun following his acceptance of the Lowell job, Lovato said that his interest in relocating to the New England area had to do with his daughter’s interest in attending college there next year. “We were looking for a big change,” he added.
Lovato’s work history during the last five years since he left Santa Fe Public Schools has been marked by frequent and turbulent job changes. According to the Lowell Sun, he had left his position as superintendent of Mesa Vista Schools to accept the Questa job following a disagreement with Mesa Vista board members, one of whom Lovato claimed had behaved “unethically” toward him.
Prior to the Mesa Vista skirmish, Lovato had left a job with the Las Vegas, New Mexico, school district after being placed on administrative leave in March 2018. According to the Las Vegas Optic, he agreed to a settlement with the district that culminated with Lovato’s resigning his position in August 2018 and receiving a $15,000 severance payout.
Before the meeting adjourned, Jaramillo announced to the board that she’d filed a request with the New Mexico Officer of the State Auditor for an investigation of Lovato’s use of the district vehicle and other practices during his brief tenure as Questa superintendent. Stephanie Telles, who heads the government accountability unit at the auditor’s office, confirmed that an investigation has been opened.
It remains to be seen whether board president Ortega and his majority of three can find and approve a new superintendent before the Nov. 5 school board election. The Taos News has submitted requests for public information to the Questa district for records of mileage and refuelings of the Chevy Tahoe, and for Lovato’s contract to determine whether it allows personal use of the vehicle by the superintendent.
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