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Dexter upsets some with superintendent’s renewal

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Andrea Wenner McGarrah, a newly elected Dexter school board member, is among those who asked at a Nov. 11 meeting that the vote on the superintendent’s contract be delayed until January. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Five attending meeting had asked for vote delay

The contract for Dexter Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lesa Dodd has been renewed by the district’s Board of Education, but some town residents aren’t pleased with the way the decision was made.

Several parents, former students and community members spoke at a Nov. 11 school board meeting prior to the board vote to express their concerns about such issues as condition of facilities, a perception of declining student achievement and difficulty retaining teachers, alleged violations of Open Meetings Act requirements by board members and complaints about cafeteria food.

Five people said that a decision about the contract should wait until the three new board members elected this month take their positions in January.

“While I am not exactly sure what you are discussing (in the executive session), I request that you table any contract renewal discussions or decisions until January,” said newly elected member Andrea Wenner McGarrah, who explained that she thinks a February-to-early-spring review of the contract would be in line with New Mexico School Board Association guidelines.

“A vote for a renewal at this time would be a violation of what the community called for in the Nov. 5 election,” she said. “There is a clear mandate from the voters for new voices to be heard and considered on matters concerning our schools, students and teachers.”

During the elections, 494 people chose McGarrah, James Salas and Kristie Regalado from among six candidates, with some residents saying that both the number of candidates and number of voters indicated the community’s desire for change. (A $2.5 million general obligation bond issue for the district also passed, with 162 of the 187 ballots cast in favor of the funding.)

A petition was circulated in the few days between the election and the board meeting that indicated concerns about the school district.

“We, the undersigned, request that the Board of Trustees of the Dexter Consolidated School District consider the following concerns before extending/renewing the contract for the current District Superintendent, (Lesa) Dodd. Under her management, the district continues to see declining academic performance in the NM PED school grading report card. Additionally, the inability to settle employee contracts, as reflected through the lack of sufficient qualified staff, has become a growing concern. There is also evidence of a lack of long-range strategic planning that can be witnessed in the dilapidation of the locker room facilities, which are utilized by many different sports participants. Community outreach, communication and responsiveness have vastly declined in recent years, resulting in historically low employee morale, poor communications, poor customer service and lack of community trust as evidenced by the large number of school board candidates and voter response in the last election.”

Dodd did not respond to emails seeking comment. School board Chair Orlando Chavez and member Nancy Miles also did not return requests for interviews.

But before the public comment period and the board vote on the contract, Dodd did talk about a 2019 report that she said came from New Mexico State University, which indicated that the entire southeast New Mexico region ranks second out of five regions in New Mexico for the number of K12 public school teacher vacancies, with 147 open positions.

She and her staff also talked about their ongoing efforts to improve school facilities, with several projects underway and staff taking preliminary steps toward renovating or rebuilding the athletic field house.

In terms of academics, the district’s “report card” from the New Mexico Public Education Department has resulted in a “C” for four of the past five years. It earned a “D” for the 2015-2016 academic year. In past interviews, Dodd said that district assessments can provide good data about specific categories of student achievement, but she expressed the view that a single grade does not provide a meaningful measurement of districts as a whole.

Cynthia Amaya, one of the six candidates for the school board, said in an interview after the board meeting that she and others who attended were upset about several things, including that the vote to renew Dodd’s contract came after a phone call to board member Bobby Vaughn so that he could vote remotely, even though he had not been participating in the meeting prior to that call and had not heard any of the discussions from community members about why they wanted to delay a vote.

According to Amaya and two others at the meeting, the vote occurred after the executive session. They said the contract renewal passed 3-2, with Mike Gomez and Chavez joining Vaughn in voting for it and Nancy Miles and interim board member Marvin Bramblett voting against it.

“Everyone was pretty disgruntled after the vote,” said Ryan Regalado, a former student body president of Dexter High School and the person who talked to the board about alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act.

Amaya said that parents such as herself have legitimate concerns not only about decision-making processes but about the academic growth of students and what she called “non-qualified staff” in teaching positions.

But she added that she still thinks progress can occur among district leadership, the board and the community.

“I hope that we are able to communicate and resolve the issues for the sake of students in the future,” she said.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.