The state’s Public Education Department suspended the Los Lunas Board of Education on Wednesday, laying out a lengthy list of allegations that includes the potential violation of several state laws.
In a letter dated Wednesday and forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office and state auditor, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the board’s five members are indefinitely suspended and detailed “the severe, un-remediated and persistent impairment of the education process by certain members of the school board.”
The four-page letter includes allegations of misinformation at public meetings, multiple violations of the state’s procurement code and attempts to extort employees if they didn’t lie to investigators.
Los Lunas Public Schools serves about 8,500 students in Valencia County south of Albuquerque.
According to the letter, the Public Education Department received a notice of potential violations in November. Though two training sessions for board members followed this year, some members continued to violate district and state policy, Stewart wrote.
The agency identified eight violations of the state’s Governmental Conduct Act. According to the letter,” certain members” of the board addressed a district employee in a threatening manner at a board meeting and pressured an employee — through their family — to lie about “moonlighting” for their supervisor while on the job.
One member of the board is accused of asking a potential vendor to the district what was “in it” for them for setting up a possible contract.
The Public Education Department also noted violations of the state’s public access laws after the board refused to hand public records over to the state, used personal email addresses for board matters and failed to provide specificity on agenda items before voting.
Los Lunas Superintendent Arsenio Romero, who took the position in January, now will report directly to Stewart rather than the board.
“If we do have any issues that would normally require school board approval, he will be my go-to for that,” Romero said in an interview.
The allegations in Wednesday’s letter are similar to those made by former Superintendent Dana Sanders in a lawsuit against the school board.
According to the Valencia County News-Bulletin, the lawsuit named then-board President Bryan Smith, Secretary Steve Otero and Vice President Eloy Giron as individual defendants as well.
The lawsuit seeks damages for three counts, including breach of contract that resulted in wrongful discharge. It is still pending, according to court records.
According to Ballotpedia, there were unsuccessful recall campaigns against Otero and Smith in 2020. The petition against Otero was withdrawn in June, and the petition against Smith was denied by a judge the next day.
The lawsuit was filed the same month the Public Education Department was first notified of violations. But Romero said he doesn’t believe the complaint played a role in Wednesday’s suspension.
“This is really directly connected to what the roles are of the school board,” he said. “I believe that the PED letter today outlines some concerns of board members falling outside of the lines of what a board member is and is not.”
Another board member, Frank Otero, said in an interview he didn’t believe he should have been suspended.
“If you look at the letter … it refers to certain board members who were allegedly involved with, you know, all these issues and bullet points and what have you,” he said. “I was not one of that certain or those certain board members.”
Frank Otero said he notified the board’s lawyer with concerns about a meeting he considered illegal.
“We had opposed, at that time, conducting a closed meeting,” he said. “For a while there, we had quite a few closed meetings.
“My conduct will stand for itself,” Frank Otero added. “I’ll just wait and see what comes.”
The current board members are prohibited from having any contact with Los Lunas district staff members or to use its facilities. In its last meeting, the board approved the district’s 2021-22 budget, which goes to the Public Education Department for final approval.