With rising COVID-19 cases casting a shadow of uncertainty on schools across New Mexico, the Santa Fe school board opened the new year with a nearly five-hour meeting covering major topics, including pandemic protocols and board transparency.

During a public-comment period, several parents criticized the district for opting for remote learning.

“We didn’t know we were going to be in this place; we thought we were back, we were boosted, we were good,” National Education Association Santa Fe President Grace Mayer replied. “We had no idea there would be a variant that would happen that would put us at risk again and our students at risk.”

Earlier in the week, the union requested the district make Fridays remote, asynchronous learning days with no real-time instruction to allow teachers more time to take care of their families and custodians more time to clean schools in coming weeks.

The district is still discussing that idea with staff members. In the meantime, it will return to remote learning Tuesday through Jan. 21 due to high absences among staff members and students, along with testing shortages.

And while district administrators and board members are scrambling to meet the ever-changing needs created by the pandemic, Noble reminded the board it is charged with redistricting Santa Fe Public Schools following the 2020 census.

The school board is required to reconfigure boundaries within the district by the end of 2022, and board President Kate Noble said plans are “a little bit behind.”

“My hope has been we could really do some deep community engagement and community conversations,” she said. “I worry we won’t have the time and capacity to do this … in the way many of us had hoped.”

Noble erred on the side of caution but offered a hope the final maps representing the school district wouldn’t end in school closures.

In recent years, the board has discussed school closures as funding fluctuates and populations decline or rise in different parts of town.

“The board really shouldn’t be planning to do this on its own,” said board counsel Tony Ortiz said during the discussion. “Some of [it] is just counting heads.”

Ortiz cautioned the board to leave political discussions about school closures out of the process.

Board members Carmen Gonzales and Sascha Anderson expressed interest in helping with the redistricting process.

“I think Sascha and I have things we can bring that are different,” Gonzales said. “I’ll bring an educator’s perspective to a lot of this.”

Both members represent districts with schools that have been discussed for closure because of their smaller populations and high transfer-in rates, including Acequia Madre and Francis X. Nava elementary schools.

The lengthy meeting turned to matters of public relations toward the end, as members discussed board interaction with constituents and the news media.

Anderson raised concerns the public is required to submit comments for board meetings via email within a short time frame before meetings.

“Parents, particularly engaged parents, or people who really care deeply about the district do want there to be more ways to engage with the board and for the board to engage directly with them,” Anderson said.

Noble and board Secretary Sarah Boses agreed. Noble said the emailing practice began during the pandemic as meetings went virtual, and “there was a lot of consideration about how to minimize disruption and some of the negative things that can happen in an open forum.”

Noble added, “There was concern at the time that this format was harder to control, that people can come in with different names or different pictures.”

The board said it likely will revisit how public comment is conducted at a future meeting.

Board members also designated Boses as the new spokesperson for the board and agreed to maintain a board “norm,” which assigns most media interactions to a single representative of the five elected school board members.

The norm was recently criticized in a letter published by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

The New Mexico School Board Association estimates 75 percent of school boards in the state designate a single spokesperson to speak on behalf of the board.

“The norm does not prohibit board members from speaking with members of the press, which is to me what was hinted in both the recent New Mexican editorial, as well as the letter of concern we received from the new Mexico Foundation for Open Government,” Boses said prior to her designation.

Ortiz encouraged members to continue with the norm Thursday, arguing members speaking independently to the media could create an “advanced” polling situation in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

He also said the board is meant to function “as a unit,” not as five entities.

“There’s actually tremendous risk with each of you speaking and doing your own thing and going whatever direction you want, that people are going to be confused about what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve decided,” Ortiz said.

He added: “This isn’t a disservice to your community. This is a disservice to the newspaper that you won’t talk to them sooner, that you won’t talk to them when they want you to.”

Before suggesting Boses for the spokesperson role, Noble, a former journalist, called recent media coverage of the board norm “shallow” and acknowledged the issue of board transparency has weighed heavily on her mind.

“This has been a hard one, and I really want to emphasize that the transparency issue is something we need to continually improve and push on and ask about, as I believe we have really been doing in substantial ways,” Noble said.

Board Vice President Rudy Garcia, Anderson and Gonzales agreed with the decision to maintain the board norm Thursday.

Anderson, a communications consultant, said having a spokesperson cuts down on the “noise” but added there will be times when it might be important for her to “offer insight” to a journalist in the future.

Board members also decided to evaluate Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez on Jan. 29. Chavez is halfway through a yearlong contract, and following the evaluation, the board will decide whether to extend his employment.

Also Thursday, the board saw a presentation on the district’s financial plan and unanimously passed a resolution in support of promoting college, career and technical education across the district by providing more work-based education to high schoolers along with dual-credit opportunities.

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