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 firstname.lastname@example.org.