New Questa school board off to a vigorous start

Río Costilla closure back on the table

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 1/24/20

"It's a difference of night and day," said one attendee of the Jan. 11 Questa school board meeting, comparing the chemistry of the new board to that of last year's board.

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New Questa school board off to a vigorous start

Río Costilla closure back on the table

Posted

"It's a difference of night and day," said one attendee of the Jan. 11 Questa school board meeting, comparing the chemistry of the new board to that of last year's board.

Rebecca Griego and Juan Cisneros won seats in the Nov. 5 election, defeating board member Ellis Garcia and board president Daryl Ortega by landslide majorities.

The members opened their first meeting by electing Jose Lovato and Tammy Jaramillo president and vice president, respectively, and Griego secretary.

Lovato thanked the members for putting their trust in him as president. "We definitely want to hit the ground running," he said, "and let's get these meetings running in a professional manner, the way we know they're supposed to." Lovato referred to the often emotionally charged and contentious conduct of board meetings under former president Ortega.

"We are open to any and all improvements to help better our district," Lovato added. "Our goal is to be here for the kids, and that should continue to be our sole focus moving forward."

Turning things around

Interim superintendent Cathy Gallegos announced a number of new hires, noting that the schools were closer to being fully staffed than they'd been in a long time.

Sarah Martinez is teaching math 7-8, English 7-8 and culinary arts.

"Sarah is taking over the math labs and will really help us bring up our math scores and get the kids ready for high school math," said Gallegos.

Kember Macdonald is starting as special education coordinator, a position that was dropped by one of the former superintendents, creating one of the deficiencies cited in the recent school board suspension.

Domingo Torres has hired on in the business office and has been a "godsend," according to Gallegos. "He's really helped us get our accounts payable up to date," she added, noting that a number of contractor accounts were two years behind in payments. "It's a wonder they were still providing us services."

Dwindling head counts hurt federal funding

Enrollment as of Jan. 7 across all Questa schools was 288, down 38 students from last school year. While six new students enrolled at midyear, this will still mean a significant loss of federal funding.

"Whenever there's a new year and a new board, parents say they're going to bring their kids back to the district," said Gallegos. "Anybody who's been saying that in the past, I really need them to step up and do it right now."

Gallegos was referring to a recent exodus from Questa schools that has seen many Questa parents enrolling their kids in Taos charter schools.

Alta Vista Principal Carla Archuleta took a different stance on this issue. "I certainly want to see Questa parents put their kids back in Questa schools," she said. "But I want them to return because they believe their children will get a high-quality education here."

On a brighter note, Gallegos reported that the most recent corrective action plan, imposed by the New Mexico Public Education Department in August for special ed and other deficiencies, was nearly completed. "We have only three more steps to be addressed out of 23," she said.

New plan for dual-credit courses

"I've spoken to a lot of parents, asked them what it would take to convince them to bring their kids back to Questa schools," said Lovato. "One thing that came up a lot was dual-credit classes."

The Taos and Peñasco districts have fully functional programs with UNM-Taos and Northern New Mexico College to grant high school credits for college courses, so that students are able to graduate high school with an associate degree as well. A few Questa students have done this informally, but the district has never officially adopted such a program.

The board moved to formalize the dual-credit program, make it official policy and hold an open community meeting to get the word out.

Bullying on the decline at Alta Vista

"There's been a huge decrease in bullying," said Archuleta in her report. "It's unacceptable, and it's not allowable. We still have some kids we need to work with, and cameras would also help in the hallways. That way, we could catch every view of where it could possibly be happening."

She noted that disciplinary actions in general have diminished this year.

"We want students to own this school and take the leadership, and I know that's starting to happen," Archuleta continued. "We had an officer come in to visit the kindergarten, and one of our kindergartners asked him, 'Where's your visitor's badge?' And it wasn't done in a disrespectful way. It was all very positive."

Archuleta said that the school has filled almost 100 percent of its staff positions. "This means our academics can really flow. Our teachers will no longer have to wear multiple hats."

She noted, however, that the school desperately needs a mental health counselor. "In order for students to focus academically, they need to have a sound mind," said Archuleta. "These little ones, if they're focused on a lot of issues coming from outside the school, it's really hard to get them to focus on academics."

Money slipping through district's fingers

One of Archuleta's chief concerns, and one which has been an ongoing problem for the district, is that the schools are missing out on a good deal of available funding simply because nobody is doing the required paperwork.

"We have a huge amount of money available," she added, "but there are criteria that have to be followed when you write a grant."

When she came on board last year, Archuleta said, there was an influx of money that hadn't been utilized. "I want to start a committee of teachers and administrators so we can start planning the federal funding portion of professional development for next year."

Vaping out of control at the junior-senior high

"Vaping is one of our main issues right now," said Gallegos in her principal's report. "I have a drawer full of the devices, because I just confiscate them. I'm going to open my own store soon and start a sideline business."

She's been suspending students caught vaping for one day but doesn't like putting them out of school. Her current plan is to start doing one-day "suspension detentions," but that would put an extra burden on the already short-staffed school.

"We know we're catching only a small percentage of them," Gallegos said. "I call the parents, but many of them are at a loss as well. I also believe some of them are buying these things for their kids because they don't think vaping is harmful."

She proposed equipping restrooms with sensors that will notify staff with a phone message when vaping occurs and provide the location as well. Gallegos also wants webcams outside the restroom doors that are activated by the sensors to photograph the vapers as they leave.

Río Costilla still on the table

The board asked for a report on the current state of Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, the tiny but high-performing elementary school that was closed by the previous board prior to the current school year.

"The boilers were emptied, and antifreeze was added where needed," Gallegos said. "We kept the electricity on to allow for a small amount of heat. I did a walk-through in September, and everything had been secured. There was no evidence of break-ins."

Board president Lovato said to the other members, "It's a new day. We can take whatever action we want on Río Costilla, make a plan - either to close it or reopen it. It's going to be 100 percent on each of your shoulders to decide that."

Board member Cisneros added, "I think there's a lot of missing information that we need to make a decision one way or the other." He made a motion to table further discussion until the board had gathered that information.

Board vice president Jaramillo offered an alternative motion: to stop the closure paperwork, have the principal [Archuleta] and a Río Costilla committee member do a walk-through to make sure the school is properly winterized and to inventory school property. The motion carried.

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