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New coalition seeks ‘accountability’ at RISD

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Pictured are community members at the Roswell Independent School District’s school board meeting on June 11. The Coalition for Equity and Fiscal Responsibility was formed by members of the public, including district employees and retired board members, to continue questioning the restructuring of administrative positions and other actions of the superintendent and school board. (Alison Penn File Photo)

Members of the Coalition for Equity and Fiscal Responsibility say the group offers support for employees and students in the Roswell Independent School District, while calling for accountability from the superintendent and school board.

Bobby Villegas and Juan Oropesa, two representatives of the coalition, informed the Daily Record that the group has around 30 members from diverse backgrounds, with various levels of involvement in RISD, and has been meeting for the last three months.

After speaking with RISD employees and concerned parents over the past few months, the coalition has decided to offer an anonymous hotline so people can share their experiences within the school district — the number is 575-637-2811. Villegas said the coalition formed for the following reasons:

• To reinstate former principal Ruben Bolaños at Roswell High School.

• To ask for the resignation of Board President Alan Gedde if his wife Tamara Gedde’s employment as an assistant principal caused him to not be in compliance with the state’s nepotism law, which some with the coalition alleged. But Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy said the school board’s attorney has assured her that’s not the case.

• To request that McIlroy’s contract not be extended, and that she not receive raises or perks “until all of these other issues are resolved,” Villegas said.

• To address concerns about the superintendent’s and the school board’s fiscal responsibility.

Restructuring

Oropesa, who has been a school board member and is currently a Roswell city councilor for Ward 1, said he was “taken back” by the board’s current policy to limit time for public speeches to three minutes per speaker — and to allow no more than 10 speakers.

Prior to the July board meeting, Oropesa said the board did not have concerns about people filling the board room, standing or holding signs. Such signs were forbidden at the July 9 meeting and public participants alleged that their First Amendment rights had been violated.

After a crowded June meeting, Gedde said the board chose to enforce the fire code limit of 75 people and banned signs inside the room and building to provide more space. He said there was a request for an additional security guard at the meetings, which he approved.

“It affects our community, our families directly …” Oropesa said of the restructuring of RISD positions, in which 25 positions — mostly principals and assistant principals — were shifted around at RISD schools in May.

Oropesa said the issue “isn’t a Hispanic or minority issue,” but rather is an “issue of equity and fair treatment of the teachers and administrators — and in particular, the students.” Both Oropesa and Villegas shared concerns about the hiring practices at RISD and lack of representation in leadership for minority students.

Since the restructuring, Villegas and Oropesa said teachers, students and others within RISD have reported concerning instances in dealing with the superintendent and administration. Oropesa said these accounts show that the restructuring, which occurred about two weeks before school ended, was creating “turmoil” and leaving schools without their leaders.

Villegas said Bolaños was removed from RHS and as a “pretense” to “pacify the community,” a work-based liaison position was created for him.

Villegas said moving Bolaños opened the door to discovering how many teachers and administrators were afraid and “our whole system’s afraid.” He said the main concern is not just about Bolaños, but the “situation that has been created by the superintendent.”

“There is a culture of fear,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think that’s something I created. I think it’s something I inherited and it’s hard to dispel fears in a short period of time. …”

Many of the people coming to the coalition don’t want their names disclosed for fear of facing retaliation in their jobs, or fear for other family members employed by the district, Villegas and Oropesa said.

McIlroy said she needed to understand the form the retaliation is taking for employees, because retaliation has parameters, similar to bullying.

“Our mission is not to just bring Mr. Bolaños back to get him reinstated at the high school level, because we understand she had that power,” Oropesa said. “However, we are looking at the future of the school systems as well.”

An RHS graduate, Manuel Wallace Warner was hired to be the principal at RHS for the 2019-20 school year, which began last Wednesday.

Suggestions of

nepotism

At the meetings over the last few months, some public speakers alleged there had been nepotism at RISD — without naming anyone.

McIlroy said the board’s attorney assured her that Gedde is neither in violation of nepotism laws, nor is his position as board president jeopardized. McIlroy said Roswell is a “big, small community” and it is “highly unlikely” to have board members who have no connections to RISD.

Both she and Gedde said in separate interviews that the board can approve salary schedules, but does not make personnel decisions.

Contract

Oropesa said the group has been informed the superintendent asked for a year extension on her contract, an increase in her salary and a new RISD vehicle.

But McIlroy said she “hasn’t asked for anything” regarding her contract or a raise, and the board makes decisions about those matters. She said she doesn’t intend on leaving and will “look at what’s best for all 10,500 kids in the Roswell district.”

According to the minutes from various meetings from May to July, the school board has held three closed sessions to discuss the superintendent’s evaluation. At Tuesday’s meeting, all five board members went into another closed session for about 35 minutes to discuss the superintendent’s contract and Gedde announced in open session that there would be no vote on the matter.

Fiscal responsibility

The coalition members shared they are concerned that the district is top-heavy with administrative positions since McIlroy was hired, when that funding could be used for athletics or supplies for students.

McIlroy said she was “willing to challenge” this idea, saying the district needs the support and expertise the administration provides for 1,200 employees and 10,500 students.

In light of the Yazzie Martinez vs. State of New Mexico decision, some coalition members say they believe the district is not properly using funds meant to assist English-language learners and at-risk students, who make up a large percentage of the district’s student population.

The Yazzie Martinez vs. State of New Mexico decision found the state was not adequately meeting the education needs of a wide range of students, including low-income students and English language learners.

Coalition members said Hispanic families bring kids — therefore more heads to count and more funds from the state — who may qualify as English-language learners or economically disadvantaged students for RISD.

According to the district’s 2017-18 report card from the New Mexico Public Education Department, 7,321 students were reported as Hispanic, or 70.4% of 10,394 students, with the 29.6% remaining students reported as Caucasian, African American, Asian, American Indian and Pacific Islander.

The report card listed that 90.7% of RISD students are economically disadvantaged and 10.1% of the students are English-language learners, from the 120th day of school. 

McIlroy said the public doesn’t usually understand how education finances work, as the funds are restricted to be spent in certain ways.

This year, she said the district allocated funds differently to each school based on the number of State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) units generated by student circumstances that bring in more funding, such as pre-k or at-risk students.

She said the district’s financial officer, Chad Cole, assistant superintendent of finance and operations, keeps the spending in check. 

Gedde said the board’s job is to approve the budget and make sure the district is not spending more than what comes to them from the state.

“We have the right to find out — did the school board make a mistake in hiring this superintendent, with such little experience?” Villegas said. “Why would they not have kept our last superintendent, our acting superintendent?” Villegas said referring to Susan Sanchez, interim RISD superintendent for about a year and a half. “So the question is, is our school board not fiscally responsible?”

A lack of communication between the board and constituents, and between the board members and superintendent, is another issue Villegas raised. He said the coalition has sent three different emails to the district without response. 

Oropesa said the coalition understands the superintendent’s power at the district, but he added that the five-member board is the “check and balance.”

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