New Questa interim superintendent vows to get federal grants back on track

'You have to be very specific as to what your needs are'

By Doug Cantwell - dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 2/14/20

"I was taken totally by surprise," said Carla Archuleta, principal of Alta Vista Elementary, when the new Questa school board moved to appoint her interim superintendent at about midnight at the end of a marathon six-hour meeting Jan. 21, replacing interim Cathy Gallegos.

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New Questa interim superintendent vows to get federal grants back on track

'You have to be very specific as to what your needs are'

Posted

"I was taken totally by surprise," said Carla Archuleta, principal of Alta Vista Elementary, when the new Questa school board moved to appoint her interim superintendent at about midnight at the end of a marathon six-hour meeting Jan. 21, replacing interim Cathy Gallegos.

Gallegos has returned to her full-time duties as principal of the junior and senior high schools. "I didn't think they [the board] handled it in a very kind or professional way," Gallegos said in a Feb. 3 phone interview. "It was done with no advance notice."

Archuleta sympathized. "When I served as administrator at an earlier job, they taught us that you always keep your résumé current and your bags packed."

In explaining the board's abrupt action, board president Jose Lovato had high praise for Gallegos' contribution.

"With critical components coming in the next couple of months, the board needed to make a decision on how to move forward," Lovato said Tuesday (Feb. 11) in an emailed statement. "We have the new budget that needs work, Public Education Department's approval of the 2020-21 school year, the school calendar, employee contracts and audit cleanup. We felt that we needed a more seasoned person in that chair to help us complete these tasks.

"It was a tough decision," he continued. "Ms. Gallegos was thrown into the position, and we were truly grateful for her holding down both the district and schools for the time she did. We have nothing but good things to say about her. She was a hard worker and put in a lot of time. To her we say, 'Thank you.'"

Archuleta's rise

Appointed principal in June 2019, Archuleta said she will continue to do both jobs, although she hopes to place an administrative assistant at Alta Vista to oversee day-to-day operations.

Archuleta retired last May - or so she thought - after logging her 29th year as a teacher, principal and superintendent in several small districts in southern Colorado.

When her husband became ill four years ago, she had stepped down from her job as superintendent of the South Coñejos district to make him her first priority. When he passed away two years later, she found that hanging around the house was not good for her psyche.

She took on a two-year contract as middle-school science teacher in Fort Garland to finish out her years of service and get the full Colorado retirement package. "I figured by that time, I'd heal from the loss of my husband and maybe consider something else."

Archuleta saw a widespread need south of the state line and applied for three positions in Northern New Mexico. "Questa was the closest to my home in Alamosa," she said, "though I didn't know a soul there. Before my interview, I went to the little church [St. Anthony's] and did some meditating on it."

She took the Alta Vista principal's position for the same reason she'd started climbing the ladder earlier in her career. "I can touch more lives in this job than I can in a classroom of 25," she said. "If I put good teachers and programs in place, I can touch a hundred or maybe hundreds of lives."

As for her career thus far, Archuleta said, "I've loved every year of it - from the first to the 29th. My belief is that we're here to serve. I really think that if you're in the right calling, it never becomes just a job."

Turning things around

"Right now, people in this district say they are wearing a lot of hats," Archuleta said. "That's going to change. I want one person overseeing transportation, and I've posted an ad for an HR person who will focus totally on that."

The district recently hired finance manager Domingo Torres, who has made serious strides in cleaning up the books and getting accounts paid off that were a year or two in arrears. Before that, Michael Vigil of the Vigil Group had been overseeing the finances, though didn't have an insider's perspective.

"It's interesting that they've been outsourcing the majority of their finance here," said Archuleta. "In the superintendent positions I've had, I was the CEO, I was the finance person. So I'm glad I know numbers, because I can pull up the budget and start planning for next year."

At 57, Archuleta is a self-avowed workaholic but says she's trying to pace herself in her new dual role. "I can run on very little fuel for a while," she said, "but over the long haul I need my rest. For now, I'm burning the candle at both ends."

Three top priorities

"If we're talking about the most urgent issues, I want to see exactly where we are financially," said Archuleta. "That will dictate next year's fiscal year. Another area is the CAP [corrective action plan] that the state has been overseeing for our special ed program, which was in a crisis situation. We've almost got that taken care of, and I want to make sure it makes it to fruition."

She mentioned Kember MacDonald, who recently hired on as special education coordinator. "Kember's helping us resolve the CAP quickly," she said. "She has all the right skills and brings good energy."

As more of a long-term priority, Archuleta believes strongly in systems. "I'm trying to build systems from the top down, because I think there's been a 'flip' here. The systems are very slim at the top. Job descriptions haven't been documented here, so I'm working with staff to clearly define their duties."

Grant writing done right

Once she'd been hired as elementary principal, Archuleta was told she'd be in charge of federal programs as well. "They were glad I'd written grants before, so they gave me that hat as well. When I started to look at where things stood, I couldn't believe it. I told them, 'We need to spend $500,000 right now or we're going to lose it.'"

As she looked further, Archuleta noticed that federal funding had consistently slipped through the district's fingers simply because no one was doing a thorough job on the paperwork.

"You have to be very specific as to what your needs are - whether it's staffing or professional development or equipment."

But it doesn't end there. "If you don't document that you've fulfilled the need you said you had, or you don't utilize the grant funds, then that's money you're taking from your general fund - which you should be keeping for staff hires and promotions.

"There's a magical way to fix it," she explained. "You need five pieces of evidence to claim a federal grant: a billing invoice; documentation of the professional development being serviced; a syllabus that shows how it's going to be serviced; a sign-in sheet that lists participants; and an outsource billing statement."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? "But without those five pieces," Archuleta said, "we can't claim the grant money."

Río Costilla's future?

Archuleta was happy to report that the committee appointed last year to assess the future of Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy has started meeting again. The tiny but high-performing school 20 miles north of Questa was closed by the prior board in September because of alleged safety and health hazards.

"The school's actually in pretty good shape," Archuleta said, having done a recent walk-through. "The heat needed to be turned up, and it needs to be maintained even in its dormant state." But she believes it would be fine to reopen it, pending some minor repairs and sealing of the doors to the old, unused wing of the building.

What about the argument made by former board members - that it was wrong to keep Río Costilla open because it served only 30-some students and was eating up a disproportionate share of district funds?

"I'd much rather keep the school open and be at 300-plus students," she said. "If you close it down and students go elsewhere, we lose the numbers but still have to pay for the utilities and other expenses. If our numbers are there, why not keep it open?"

"[Michael] Lovato [the former superintendent who resigned last September] would not let me speak on the school's behalf," she said. "I was not allowed to get into the numbers. That was his topic, and I was not to say anything."

But as a result of closing Río Costilla, the district's numbers are not where they ought to be. At latest count, they were down to 288 students.

There was also the fact that Río Costilla had much better PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] scores and state performance ratings than the other schools in the district. Does she believe that's why the previous board wanted to shut it down - because it made the other schools look bad?

"If so, that's a shame, because it's part of their district. They should take pride in having a model school and try to share what it's doing right with the other schools."

As for the current board, Archuleta feels optimistic. "I believe they're working in the best interests of the district and know where it needs to go."

Does she think she'll be tapped for the permanent superintendent's job? "Whether I'm in this seat temporarily or for the long haul," she said, "I'm here to do the work. That's what I was hired for."

Toward a permanent hire

When the new board took their seats Jan. 1, they essentially started over in the search for a new permanent superintendent.

"We have the position open for the remainder of February," said board president Jose Lovato. "Once we close it, we'll take a look at the candidates and do a thorough evaluation. With a seasoned person in place [as interim], we feel like we do not have to rush this decision and can place the right person in the job. Our current interim and past interim can put in for it, so they also get a fair shake at the job with a proper interview process."

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