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Protest signs banned at school board meeting

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Ruben Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, right, raises his cellphone at the meeting saying he has been receiving calls from constituents about alleged racism against Hispanic administrators for RISD. Board Member Mona Kirk is pictured to the left of Sanchez. (Alison Penn Photo)

Some attendees allege violation of ‘First Amendment rights’

Retired and current educators and administrators, former school board members and other community members raised their voices — some in support and others with concerns — about the restructuring of principal and vice principal positions at the Roswell Independent School District.

Some speakers at Tuesday’s RISD School Board meeting returned from last month’s meeting to support Ruben Bolaños, former Roswell High School principal, who has been moved to a new position, and other Hispanic administrators — such as Hugo Loya from Mesa Middle School — who have been moved to other schools for the 2019-2020 year beginning Aug. 7.

As confirmed through a public records request, Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy sent an email on May 17 explaining that Bolaños would be leaving his current position at RHS to become “community partnership liaison,” a working title for him to be the district’s representative with local businesses, to set up paid learning opportunities for RISD students. On the district’s July personnel report, Bolaños’ new title is “work-based learning liaison.”

Speakers

Among the 10 people signed up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, two speakers shared support of the restructuring, one was not present when her name was called and Denise Dawson spoke on another topic. Some others expressed concerns.

Emily Valencia, a former Roswell High School student, explained to the school board her opinion of the importance of having supportive teachers during the Roswell Independent School Board meeting on Tuesday night. (Alison Penn Photo)

“I am not the numbers that you’re looking at, your papers,” Emily Valencia, a former RHS student, said. “I am me. I’m Emily and I am — as well as so many other students like the ones that were listed — successful because I was told that I could be successful by somebody that looked like me, by somebody that talked in the same language that I did, by somebody that had all of the efforts regardless of … any problems to support me, every time, all the time, as much as he could, as much as they could.

“And I’m asking you guys to look at the staff, look at the people that are working with me, that are working with with the students here, really look at them and consider how much value there is in their sharing of love, consideration and admiration for the children that they watched grow up and now attend (a) university and fulfill their dreams …”

Nearly every seat in the room was filled and two security guards were manning the RISD board room on Tuesday night. McIlroy and all five board members were also present.

At last month’s meeting, the room was crowded with people holding signs, which were visibly absent at Tuesday night’s meeting. Pauline Ponce, one of the public speakers, asked the board if people were told to not bring in signs. Board President Alan Gedde said it was the board’s decision and in response, Ponce called the board’s actions “a violation of our First Amendment rights” to petition peacefully.

Ponce also said the “superintendent and her staff must be reviewed and in some cases, require extensive investigation” for “possible” noncompliance in legal and personnel matters; what she described as “inappropriate allocations” of funding for at-risk students; breach of confidential personnel issues and “a perceived pattern of unequal demotions of Hispanic administrative staff.”

An emotional moment of appreciation was offered to recognize veterans and active duty military personnel at the beginning of the two-and-a-half hour meeting. During public comment, Juan Oropesa, Ward 1 city councilor and a veteran, said those in the armed forces fought for freedom of speech.

Oropesa said after the moment of appreciation, he found it “ironic” that the board denied the public their freedom of speech. He added that he was “appalled, disappointed” by their actions.

“You serve for the people,” Oropesa said, addressing lack of response to various communications with the board members. “We are your bosses, and so when we ask a question of you, we expect an answer.”

After the meeting, Hilda Sanchez, retired educator; Francisco Patoni, RHS Spanish teacher; and Rosalba Price, a teacher at Pecos Elementary School, told the Daily Record that they were prohibited by security from bringing signs into the meeting — and in one case, they were told to hold their signs across the street, off RISD property. Sanchez said this was “horrible,” and they had the right to be there as taxpayers and citizens.

Skyler Pierce, a teacher at RHS, and Kathleen Gallaway, who spoke as an administrator and retired educator, read speeches that supported restructuring, in favor of the students. Gallaway said she represented the “silent professional majority that supports restructuring for the benefits of students,” and that the success of students is measured in data that is expected by parents, all the way up to the government and universities, for accountability.

She said administrators are at-will employees and encouraged trust of the district’s leadership to make decisions for students.

“The students of RISD do not need division of faculties and town to be something that limits them,” Pierce said. “It is our job to eliminate barriers for our students, not create them.”

Equity audit 

In the reports at the end of the meeting, McIlroy said she intends to pursue a request for proposals for an equity audit of the district as part of the strategic plan. McIlroy said she has received information on such an audit, from large and urban districts, from a national superintendent symposium in May.

McIlroy said an audit would look at “every single aspect” of the district — from hiring practices to examining board policy — for “inherent bias.” She said she would “not sit by and let less than excellent performance be the standard in this district” because RISD students deserve excellence and opportunity.

“We’re going to be an open book,” McIlroy said. “If we’re screwing something up, by golly, we’re gonna find it and we’re going to fix it. And that is a commitment.”

At the meeting, McIlroy said her own children and grandchildren will be moving to Roswell within a couple of years and closing the “achievement gap” is important to her on a more personal level. In a phone interview, she clarified that her two daughters-in-law are both Hispanic and her five grandchildren, and one on the way, are Hispanic, too. McIlroy said her daughters-in-law find the allegations of racism “offensive.”

Board Member Mona Kirk said she has expressed concerns to the superintendent during closed session. She said it is the board’s duty to unite the district and make the best decision for RISD, while correcting the “very alarming” situation and gaining trust “of all RISD employees, students and parents.”

Ruben Sanchez, school board vice president, said he received some feedback that bothered him where constituents said he needed “to stand up for la raza, we need to get the white devil out of the leadership position. …”

According to the Associated Press, “raza” is literally translated to race in Spanish, and in the 1960s and ‘70s, was another term used by Chicano civil rights activists meaning “the people” or “community” regarding diversity among Mexicans.

Sanchez said he saw these comments as divisive and said his people were Americans from all backgrounds. He said he would not allow it to be presented in the board room, it needed to end, and a solution needed to be discovered.

Ruben Sanchez and Dr. Kathleen Pittman, board secretary, petitioned the community, asking what they can do to help find the solution, and encouraged continued communication with the board. Gedde said it has been a “tough couple of months” in Roswell and suggested that stories of the community and board members should be told to each other.

More coverage of this meeting will appear in a later edition.

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.