The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government called on the Santa Fe school board in a letter this week to end a long-standing practice in which only one of the elected members speaks with media about key district issues.
“This policy is problematic for a myriad of reasons,” says the letter, signed by the foundation’s new director, Shannon Kunkel. It was emailed Tuesday to all five school board members and referred to their arrangement of having the president serve as the board’s spokesperson. Under the practice, other board members generally decline to comment for news stories, do not respond to phone calls or emails, or refer reporters to the president.
Kunkel said in the letter, “It prevents meaningful public discourse, limits a diversity of perspectives and aims to stifle dissent.”
Board President Kate Noble said the practice is not a formal policy but a “norm.” It was encouraged by Lorraine Price, who wanted the president to speak for the board on matters ranging from school closures to the panel’s own policies, Noble said, adding Price didn’t want media to “poll the votes” of board members before they took an official vote at a public meeting.
She wrote in an email to Kunkel on Wednesday she has never liked the practice.
“Given the desire of most other Board Members to keep this Board norm in place, I have agreed to observe it,” she wrote. She added she would be willing to ask the board to revisit the arrangement.
Keeping with the norm, most other board members largely were silent on the issue this week.
Sascha Anderson, newly elected to the board’s District 5, said in a brief interview Wednesday she had “nothing to add or subtract” from Noble’s response to Kunkel.
Asked when she would speak with media about issues facing the district or measures under consideration by the board, Anderson said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Board Vice President Rudy Garcia, in the District 4 seat, and District 1 member Carmen Gonzales did not return requests for comment.
Board Secretary Sarah Boses, who represents District 2, offered some thoughts in an email Wednesday.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a time with our current board that I would feel the need to break our norm and speak to a reporter,” she wrote. “I feel comfortable making my comments publicly at board meetings for the media and members of the community.”
She wrote: “For me, that is the epitome of transparency — thoughtful statements that are made to all with no opportunity for misunderstanding or misconstruing or cherry picking quotes.”
Boses also added a discussion item about the board’s media relations “norm” to the agenda for a public meeting next week.
While Price advocated “clearly and persuasively” in favor of having all board members dodge news media except the president, the practice also stemmed from advice from the New Mexico School Boards Association, Noble wrote in her email to Kunkel. “In our NMSBA trainings, we are encouraged to use our board meetings for discussion and debate and to focus on this time in order for the public to have absolute transparency and clarity about when and how issues will be discussed and decided. We are trained to then speak with one unified voice outside of meetings.”
Price, who died in August, was elected to the board in 2013 and served as president of the board in 2017 and 2018. The practice went into effect long before she stepped into the leadership role, another former board president said.
Steven Carrillo, defeated by Noble for the position of board president in March 2019, said the president was tasked with providing formal statements to the media during his time on the board. It wasn’t until the end of his tenure — which began in 2011 — that board members stopped sharing their thoughts publicly, he added.
“I believe this current board is taking it to an extreme level,” Carrillo said. “The intent was never to quash speaking to the media by the board.”
Kunkel said Wednesday her organization learned about the board’s media relations arrangement from a Dec. 20 editorial in The New Mexican, which came in response to several board members failing to respond to requests for comment on declining enrollment in Santa Fe schools.
The local school board isn’t the only one in New Mexico with members who choose to keep silent on education issues outside public meetings.
School Board Association Director Joe Guillen said up to 75 percent of the state’s public school boards follow the group’s advice to have only the board president address media queries.
Guillen said the recommendation has been a part of the association’s handbooks and trainings for much of his 15-year tenure with the organization.
“The majority of them have designated the board president as the spokesperson on issues, particularly on issues that are divisive, for instance, or there is a split opinion on an issue,” he said.
A handbook for school board chairs published on the association’s website states “the board chair is in an excellent position to help foster good relationships between the board and the staff, the board and the press.” It goes on to recommend school boards “authorize the board chair or superintendent or both to act as the spokesperson for the board.”
He said the recommendation mostly advises the board president to act as a spokesperson after the board votes on a matter.
“Now, I don’t think it would be improper for those board members that want to express their opinions or their preliminary position on items,” Guillen said.
But, he said, some board members might resist speaking with news reporters to avoid the appearance of a “rolling quorum,” in violation of New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act.
State guidance on the law issued in 2015 makes no mention of newspaper interviews as a possible violation.
Kunkel said the Foundation for Open Government likely will be digging into the language of the state’s public meeting law, along with state and school board association guidelines.
She questioned how the local school board developed its practice.
“Within the Santa Fe school board,” she asked, “was there a discussion about this policy in the past, and what records exist on that discussion?”
Kunkel issued a response to Noble, a former news reporter, via email Thursday.
“Ultimately, with your journalism background and understanding of the importance of a meaningful free press, you are uniquely positioned to right a wrong and end this practice,” she wrote, “and instead create a culture of open expression and transparency within the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education.”