Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the state Higher Education Department to reject Northern New Mexico College’s budget for 2014-15 in protest of the school’s decision to cut several popular programs, faculty members and a child care center.

It is the latest sign of unrest at the troubled Española college, which has faced accusations of financial mismanagement and poor leadership during the past few months as it wrangled with budget constraints.

The petition comes as four of five Northern New Mexico College faculty members let go this week claim they were fired in retaliation for speaking out against the school’s administration. But college officials say those teachers’ contracts were not renewed, either because of disciplinary issues or because their programs are being cut as part of a budget-tightening process. At least five other school employees also are being let go, according to a college spokesman. Officials blame previous administrations for the school’s current financial woes.

Critics asking the state Higher Education Department to step in say the college has mishandled federal grant funds and has raised tuition and cut programs, moves that have led to a decline in enrollment. They also argue that while considering cuts, the college has given big raises to top administrators.

About 500 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday.

Higher Education Secretary Jose Garcia confirmed Thursday that his department has received numerous complaints about the college, but he said it is not within his department’s purview to investigate the allegations. “However, we are concerned about the nature and volume of these communications and have conveyed our concern to leaders at the college,” he said.

Ricky Serna, vice president for advancement and a spokesman at Northern New Mexico College, said school representatives met with Higher Education officials Thursday to explain the school’s need to make cuts to meet budget needs.

Of the teachers whose contracts weren’t renewed, including two professors, an adjunct instructor and the director of the dual-credit program at the college, Serna said, “If someone is not renewed at fiscal year, they have a sense of why and what happened. … Although non-contract renewals occur annually, we ensure that the employee has been made aware of these concerns up to that point.”

But those who were let go this week insist they received just a short letter saying their contracts were not being renewed without any explanation.

One, assistant professor James Biggs, an outspoken critic of the college’s leaders, said he has received outstanding evaluations for several years.

Biggs has publicly criticized the way the college’s leaders have handled finances and initiated an investigation into whether the college mismanaged federal grants. He said he also filed a police report alleging Human Resources Director Bernie Padilla assaulted him during a February 2014 meeting held to discuss Biggs’ criticisms. Though he received unanimous support for receiving tenure from the college’s tenure committee, the Board of Regents didn’t give Biggs tenure when it voted on the issue earlier this year, he said.



“This [non-renewal] stems from a combination of things … and is in part retaliation,” Biggs said this week.

He and several other faculty members who were let go this week said they are contemplating legal action under the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act.

Another employee, Crestina Quintana, who runs the dual-credit program, said she was unexpectedly given a “risk” letter as a warning just last Thursday. By Monday, she had discovered that she had been locked out of her office and denied computer access, she said, and her supervisors demanded her resignation immediately.

She said she believes the college is retaliating against her for acting as an adviser to the Student Senate, which took a vote of “no confidence” in the administration in April. The college’s Faculty Senate also cast a vote of “no confidence” in the leaders last month as word of program and staff cuts spread across the campus.

Patricia Perea, another professor whose contract wasn’t renewed this week, said once she became secretary for the Faculty Senate, she became a target of upper management. She said President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló and provost Sena approached her to tell her she should not have joined the Faculty Senate. As with Biggs, she said all of her performance evaluations have been positive.

A public records search of missives to the Higher Education Department about the college indicate college personnel and supporters have been complaining for at least a year about the way the institution conducts its business. Last spring, the college also laid off more than 20 people, several of whom said this week that they felt it was in retaliation for voicing criticism of management.

Last week, some college staffers expressed concern that the school had hired a private investigator to interview personnel. Serna said that action was in response to a personnel matter. Biggs said he believes it is because of his police report concerning Padilla.

Friday is the last day of the current school year on the campus, and a potluck for fired faculty members is planned at 11:30 a.m. in the cafeteria.

On Saturday, the college will graduate about 160 students in a commencement ceremony on campus.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

(12) comments

Thomas Alfaro

“This is not a local community issue; this is a State of New Mexico issue. We, the people of New Mexico, are of different races and from different cultures that have developed from deep-rooted histories. The backbone of New Mexico is driven by generations of skilled workforces in Auto Body Repair, Automotive Technology, Construction Trades Management, Technology, and Agricultural Practices.

“I want to live in a community where my neighbor can be educated in whatever he/she chooses. Not by what an administration dictates, what he/she should learn.”

"The elimination of critical programs and valuable professors has been that these issues are preventable. This college serves central and northern New Mexico students within diverse age groups. Classes have been traditionally small and this status has not changed for decades. Presently, low enrollment is largely due to ill management decisions, not small classrooms. Many well–educated professors and other dedicated staff remain at NNMC with a vision of opportunity and the desire to make great people excellent professionals. The college is losing this diverse group of leaders, 1 by 1."

"If management decisions continue on as is, we the people of New Mexico may as well slap a Walmart sign on all of our northern communities and shake our history, roots, and communities goodbye."

"Leaders of New Mexico and decision makers of NNMC, we challenge you to assist us, the people and backbone of New Mexico's workforce in continuing to offer critical programs and promote the future success of our cultures and generations.”

J.B. Moore

It was good to come together in fellowship today to celebrate our colleagues at the farewell potluck. But it is terribly sad and disturbing to confront the loss of their contributions. A veteran adjunct instructor in Humanities and Social Sciences at Northern, I quickly came to appreciate in the past year that Dr. Patricia Perea and Annette Rodriguez are not only impressive and accomplished scholars, they are extremely talented teachers in the classroom. The latter is evident to me from both the consistent testimony of our shared students and from my having sat in on their classes. I have been looking forward to working further with each of them on continuing development of our bachelor’s program. I counted myself lucky to be scheduled to teach a class together with Annette Rodriguez this coming fall. No more.

Is it any coincidence that some of the finest teachers, the ones whose instruction and example the students crave, are also the ones who repeatedly stand up and suggest, recommend, insist upon faculty and community input on the course of the college? Maybe those things go together. Maybe what also go together are the pursuit of top-down control—“empire”—and practices of silencing, intimidation, and retaliation.

These latter practices disclose little to no commitment to the free exchange of ideas, or to the self-determination and empowering of individuals in the career and life-paths of their choice, whether Chicano Studies or Information Engineering or Automotive Technology. So much for education.

Guy Stark

As a graduate (with honors) from this institution, I am embarrassed and angered by the absolute incompetence of this inept Administration and it's croney Board of Regents! When will the New Mexico State Board of Education or Governor Martinez be willing to step in and hear the will of the people, obviously the current leadership of this institution could careless what the people have to say! This is clearly an elitist attitude being displayed from this group that need to be brought back down to earth!

goshkent

By claiming that those non-renewed "had a sense of why and what happened" and had "been made aware of these concerns," Serna is basically admitting that some of these people WERE retaliated against for speaking out -- something he has denied up to now -- because the only thing they had been made aware of was the administration's unhappiness with what they were saying. Their job performances could not be impugned, no matter how hard the administration fished for evidence against them.
And this of course makes a mockery of the new "anti-bullying" and academic freedom policy changes the administration trotted out this week as a public relations stunt to take attention away from their retaliations. Don't fall for it, readers. Serna's familiar talking point that his critics are "unaccountable" faculty is also an old propaganda ploy: ascribe to your critics the worst qualities that best apply to yourself.

Mellis Schmidt

Northern was once a wonderful community college where the community had the opportunity to obtain affordable higher education and trades. I have been a Northern faculty member, Chairperson and my last two years as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. This is the third year in a row for these kind of cuts and firings with no explanation. This is the administration fourth year and they still blame prior administration which can only show their incompetence.
The quote from Ricky Serna that people knew is just not true in many cases. I know for a fact that some people were surprised by the letter that they would no longer be hired. Last year the administrative assistant for Humanities and Social Sciences which I supervised was given that letter without my knowledge or her direct supervisor's knowledge. Letters were sent to the Board of Regents and Administration asking for an explanation with no response.
It is true that some people knew these letters were coming because they critiqued the administration and everyone knew that they could be fired for speaking out.
As the Dean I had no real authority and was kept out of the loop many times, especially in the final months of last year.
There is no excuse that there is NO oversight of the current administration and Board of Regents and the students have no recourse. This is about the students of NNMC and the inability of anyone to stop this continuous destruction of Northern New Mexico College.

Hector Diego

The type of people that get bullied at northern are stellar teachers with kind hearts and the best intentions for their students and fellow faculty. Typically, they have much higher levels of education and this infuriates the nitwits of the northern administration who have less education, less people skills and have generally gone through most their lives being disliked. This makes them spiteful. They take out their anger in tantrums and fits on those who befuddle them with all their fancy smart-person learnins and levity. It is an ugly thing when mean spirited bullies get into a position of power. Their carnal urges cause them to lash out on a world that has hurt them. This can do great damage to the lives of the innocent bystanders who accidentally wandered into their line of fire. But the worst is their lying. Every falsehood becomes a truth to those that must defend this kind of behavior. Trust nothing NNMC officials say, not Serna, Sena, Padilla, Barcelo, none of them. They're all in on their conspiracy together.

Julian Grace

Pretty soon there won't be any teachers or students or programs. Then the management will just be using state funds to pay themselves for what?

Jeff E Green

Maybe they'll tear down the buildings and sell the scrap metal! Which is to say, they're running the college like a band of vulture capitalists. Please sign the petition: http://chn.ge/1jkVl7z

Miranda Merklein

Please join us at 11:30 Friday (today) in the cafeteria to say goodbye to all the esteemed faculty fired by administration at Northern in Espanola. Potluck.

Jeff E Green

I'm from Northern's graduating class of 2013 and I just now signed the petition. I have no confidence in the current NNMC administration's ability to get the college back on track. Please sign if you agree: http://chn.ge/1jkVl7z

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