Fistfights, meddling, gridlock among alleged failings in Questa
New Mexico’s public education secretary has suspended the authority of Questa’s school board, rendering all six members powerless.
Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera found that a faction of the bickering board meddled in daily operations that should have been the purview of the superintendent.
She also said a bitter 3-3 split among board members made it impossible to accomplish school business during board meetings.
Skandera, right, cited certain board members’ failings as engaging in fistfights at public meetings, harassing school staff members and mismanagement leading to no management at all.
She has appointed one of her deputies, Paul Aguilar, to serve as Questa’s board of education.
Aguilar told the state Public Education Commission at a meeting today that the Questa board was dysfunctional and misbehavior by a faction had jeopardized the effectiveness of schools.
The Questa Independent School District has about 510 students.
Aguilar said state law required that all board members be removed in an emergency such as this one. Skandera simply could not oust “the bad actors” whose behavior had caused trouble that was hurting students, Aguilar said.
In her order removing power from the school board members, Skandera said three intervened improperly in daily operations.
“Upon notarized statements, the PED has been informed that board members Matt Ortega, Tammy Jaramillo and Daryl Ortega pressured former school superintendents to fire school personnel,” Skandera stated.
She said the superintendent is the chief executive officer who is responsible for hiring and firing employees, and for the daily management of staff members.
Jaramillo, in a telephone interview this afternoon, said the accusations were false.
Of the allegation that Jaramillo intervened in school personnel matters, she said: "That is totally incorrect."
Skandera also said that she received a complaint about Matt Ortega striking his own son in the parking lot of a school, and that he harassed a principal, Valerie Trujillo, for reporting him to authorities.
Matt Ortega harassed and micromanaged staff to a point that the district banned him — a school board member — from campus, Skandera’s statement said.
In addition, she said, Matt Ortega ordered that an electrical line belonging to the district be dug up. Skandera said his interference cost the district money because more work was required of contractors and the district’s legal counsel.
Board meetings in Questa were chaotic. Staff members said certain board members publicly accused them of immorality or crimes.
By Skandera’s account, some meetings ended in fistfights between board members or with some members simply walking out, meaning there was no quorum and no chance to vote on district business. She did not specify which board members allegedly fought with one another.
But Jaramillo and another board member, Kenneth D. Gallegos, said that violence happened before they were elected to the school board in February 2011. Both said the fight involved Matt Ortega and a former board member.
Questa is supposed to have seven board members. But after one resigned, the remaining six could never agree on a replacement. The 3-3 division on the board made it impossible to get anything done, Aguilar said.
The district’s interim superintendent, Lester Beason, asked the state Public Education Department for help, as the board had not acted on matters such as paying bills or approving staff assignments he recommended.
Gallegos said he was upset that all six board members were "thrown under the bus." But, he said, business was not getting done. If his being sacrificed was necessary to weed out others, then perhaps it is worthwhile, Gallegos said.
Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the department, said he did not believe a full school board had ever before been removed from power by the education secretary.
A public hearing on the board members’ suspensions is scheduled for Nov. 5 at the Taos Convention Center. Board members can appear then to show cause why their suspension should not be permanent, Aguilar said.
In addition to the Ortegas and Jaramillo, the suspended board members are Bernie A. Torres, Jack L. Gallegos and Kenneth D. Gallegos.
SUSPENDED BOARD MEMBER MATT ORTEGA'S REACTION
He says the report is false and outdated. He said he never struck his son, and that he was cleared in a state investigation.
Ortega also said he never interfered in personnel matters or any other day-to-day issue.
"I didn't do anything wrong," said Ortega, a board member for almost eight years.
REACTION FROM OUSTED BOARD MEMBER TAMMY JARAMILLO
(This statement is in her own words. We did not edit it, hence the run-on sentences).
It is clear that people are upset and they will go to extreme measures. This is what I call political misdirection – let’s not focus on the real issues, let’s not look at the truth – when we have two schools that are in failing status and one of them has 14 students and we are paying approx. $300,000.00 year and paying contractors for mediocre work. Staff needs be held accountable and so does the contractors – of course they will be misdirecting the truth and state half truths or just down outright lie. We have good staff and I do believe that Questa Independent School District can rise above our failing grades; all our energy should be going to bringing up the Grades, increasing enrollment at Rio Costilla and our School's in tip top shape to give Students a better Education.