Home News Local News Bill to give school boards power to reopen schools defeated

Bill to give school boards power to reopen schools defeated

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New Mexico House Minority Leader Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia. Townsend, who was one of the sponsors of House Bill 182, denounced Wednesday’s vote by the House Health and Human Services Committee to table the bill, which would have allowed school boards to decide when schools should reopen during a state public health emergency. (AP File Photo)

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A bipartisan proposal to give local school boards in New Mexico the authority to decide when to resume in-person learning while a state public health emergency order is in place has been defeated.

The Health and Human Services Committee of the New Mexico House of Representatives blocked House Bill 182 (HB 182) from moving forward Wednesday when members voted 6-4 to table the bill. State Rep. Phelps Anderson, DTS-Roswell, was among the committee members who voted against the tabling motion.

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, who was one of the sponsors of HB 182, called the motion to table the bill a show of disrespect for school board members and administrators throughout the state. He also accused committee members who voted down the bill of ignoring the concerns of parents who are worried about the negative impact the lack of in-person learning has had on the social and academic well-being of their children.

“It’s shameful and condescending to New Mexicans that their voices are continually ignored when the health and well-being of their children are paramount,” he said.

HB 182 would have allowed each of New Mexico’s 89 public school districts, as well as the governing bodies of charter schools, to work in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and state health agencies during a state public health emergency to determine when schools under their jurisdictions could restart in-person classes.

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Once a school board makes the decision to restart in-person classes, parents and guardians would be provided with relevant information regarding the details of how schools would reopen. Parents would then choose whether their child will take part in school through in-person learning; a hybrid model of both in-person or virtual instruction; or entirely through virtual means.

In January, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in her state of the state address that individual school districts could adopt a hybrid model — where groups of students alternate between in-person and online instruction.

State Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, during Wednesday’s committee meeting said despite the governor’s shift back toward more in-person learning, his bill is still needed.

“The bill is necessary because the governor could change her mind next week and take away what she gave to us in the speech,” Baldonado said.

Supporters of HB 182 say local school boards and not the state have the most knowledge of the school districts and are best equipped to establish plans to offer in-person instruction while also safely adhering to social distancing protocols.

“I just cannot imagine trying to tackle this sort of, with the idea that only Washington or Santa Fe has an idea of what we can do in implementing the reopening of our schools,” Anderson, a self-described staunch supporter of local control of schools, said during the committee hearing.

“The control does give these school boards the ability to make the decision whether our kids need to be back in school,” state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said Wednesday after the committee hearing.

Opponents of HB 182 though said not enough is done in the bill to make sure public health recommendations would have to be complied with in order to reopen.

State Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said that while the legislation does say that school districts would have to take into account the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, New Mexico Department of Health and New Mexico Public Education Department before reopening for in-person learning, HB 182 could create some confusion if the recommendations of the agencies conflict.

“This seems to me like there is potential for a difference between what the CDC says globally, across the country and what specifics are in the the state from DOH (Department of Health),” Armstrong said.

Others said language in the bill that would force school districts to follow the public health guidelines is not strong enough.

State Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said she is worried how the political nature of the pandemic could factor into the decision-making process of school boards when it comes to reopening.

Thomson said she has received emails from people who deny that COVID-19 exists, and notes that some local governing bodies in New Mexico have voted to not enforce the governor’s public health orders.

School boards in some parts of the state, who have members who do not like the governor or are skeptical about the virus, she said, could end up reopening and placing children in danger to send a political message.

“And that really is scary to me,” Thomson said.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, said many of the conversations HB 182 is intended to start are already happening. She said recently a superintendent in her district spoke with parents at a school board meeting, some in favor of returning to in-person learning and others more hesitant.

Ferrary said that superintendent has spoken with each principal in the district and is working in consultation with the state to reopen.

“I just don’t see your bill as being needed or effective,” Ferrary said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.