Leon Nall, who was a school board member in the village of Floyd for 20 years, describes himself as the victim of a political coup.
Nall and his four colleagues on the board were suspended last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.
Board members had voted to make masks and distancing guidelines optional for students in the Floyd Municipal Schools. Their position contradicted Lujan Grisham’s protocol to stop the spread of COVID-19 and its aggressive delta variant.
Ryan Stewart, serving out his final two weeks as secretary of public education, removed the Floyd school board from power. At once, the state rules on COVID-19 precautions were posted in Floyd. Gone were voluntary measures on masks, right along with former board president Nall and the others who tried to enact them.
“I did nothing more than what the people who elected me asked me to do,” Nall said in an interview. “The people who elected me have lost their representation.”
On a broader scale, state Republicans hope the confrontation in Floyd will help them build momentum for the gubernatorial election in 2022.
A speck on most state maps, Floyd is an unlikely place for New Mexico Republicans to turn around a losing streak in statewide elections.
The village west of Portales has a population of 110 and a school district serving 220 kids. Or at least Floyd had that many students before the state suspended its school board.
Nall said some families might opt for home schooling, private schools or even classrooms in Texas. Defections would protest the loss of local control.
Discontent with Lujan Grisham in Floyd and nearby Eastern New Mexico towns might not be much of an opening for Republicans. They already control that region.
The real question is whether any of the six largely unknown Republican candidates for governor can be competitive statewide. Some are trying to raise their profile by protesting the Floyd school board’s ouster.
Lujan Grisham has wide name identification, which Republicans hope is a weakness. Her handling of the coronavirus pandemic was unpopular in many circles and certain regions. Floyd, two hours from Lubbock, Texas, and a world away from Santa Fe, is one of them.
Nall and the state Republican Party hope residents across New Mexico will see Lujan Grisham as autocratic and unfair. That theme probably won’t resonate in the state’s population centers, where Lujan Grisham ran strong in 2018 on her way to a landslide victory.
About the time the Floyd School Board voted to make masks optional, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave different counsel. The federal agency recommended that even fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings, based on transmission levels of COVID-19.
Democrats during the last five years have become dominant in New Mexico’s population centers, most notably vote-rich Albuquerque. With Republicans sliding in larger cities, Democrats hold all statewide offices: governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state and the two U.S. Senate seats.
Worse for Republicans, they lack strong candidates for most state offices.
Another plus for Lujan Grisham is voters know Republicans haven’t always been consistent about local control of public schools.
Nall saw many Republicans at the state level vote to take away his authority on whether Floyd students should be spanked.
Most of the state’s larger school districts had outlawed corporal punishment, but paddling kids was still allowed in Floyd and many other rural school districts until 10 years ago.
Democratic state legislators sponsored a bill to end spanking in public schools. Younger Republican lawmakers tended to side with progressive Democrats on the issue.
The bill squeaked through the Legislature. At the time, New Mexico’s governor was Republican Susana Martinez, who had been a career prosecutor before being elected to the state’s top office. Rural school board members believed Martinez would veto the bill to outlaw paddling of students.
She surprised them. Martinez signed the measure into law. Nall called the decision a setback for schools.
“It was a deterrent. It worked,” he said of paddling students.
Martinez made the right call in ending school spankings. As for local control, she said it had other limits. Her administration removed the entire school board in Questa, citing dysfunction and inefficiency.
Nall says Lujan Grisham’s ouster of the Floyd School Board is different. He hopes to be reinstated by a court.
“I look at it like I’m on sabbatical,” he said.
The governor’s Public Education Department has a different vision. It has filed suit to remove Nall and the others for good.