As rising COVID-19 cases cast a shadow of uncertainty across schools across New Mexico, the Santa Fe School Board kicked off the New Year with a nearly five-hour session that covered key issues, including pandemic minutes and board transparency.
During a public statement, several parents criticized the district for choosing distance learning.
“We didn’t know we would be in this place; we thought we were back, we were strengthened, we were good, ”replied Grace Mayer, president of the National Education Association Santa Fe. “We had no idea that there would be a variant that would put us and our students in danger again.”
Earlier this week, the union urged the district to set up secluded, asynchronous study days on Fridays with no real-time teaching to give teachers more time to look after their families and caregivers to clean schools in the coming weeks.
The district is still discussing this with employees. In the meantime, it will return to distance learning Tuesday through January 21 due to high staff and student absences and testing bottlenecks.
And as district administrators and board members strive to meet the ever-changing needs created by the pandemic, Noble reminded the board that it will be tasked with redistributing Santa Fe public schools after the 2020 census.
The school board has to reconfigure the boundaries within the district by the end of 2022, and board chairman Kate Noble said the plans are “a little bit behind”.
“My hope was that we could have really deep community engagement and conversation with the community,” she said. “I worry that we won’t have the time and capacity to do it … as many of us had hoped.”
Noble was on the safe side but gave hope that the final maps depicting the school district wouldn’t end with school closings.
For the past few years, the board has been discussing closing schools as funding fluctuates and the population in different parts of the city falls or rises.
“The board really shouldn’t plan on doing this alone,” said board advisor Tony Ortiz during the discussion. “Some [it] only counts heads. “
Ortiz warned the board against excluding political discussions about school closings from the process.
Board members Carmen Gonzales and Sascha Anderson expressed interest in helping with the redistribution.
“I think Sascha and I have different things to bring,” said Gonzales. “I will bring an educator’s perspective to a lot.”
Both members represent districts with schools whose closure has been discussed because of their smaller populations and high conversion rates, including the Acequia Madre and Francis X. Nava elementary schools.
The lengthy session turned to public relations towards the end as members discussed the board’s interaction with voters and the news media.
Anderson expressed concern that the public would be required to email comments on board meetings within a short time in advance of meetings.
“Parents, especially committed parents or those close to their hearts, want there to be more ways to connect with the board and the board to contact them directly,” said Anderson.
Adel and board secretary Sarah Boses agreed. Noble said the email practice began during the pandemic when the meetings went virtual and “there has been a lot of thought on how to minimize disruption and some of the negative things that can happen in an open forum”.
Noble added, “There was a concern at the time that this format was harder to control, that people with different names or different pictures could come in.”
The board said it would likely re-examine how public comment is conducted at a future meeting.
The board members also named Boses as the new board spokesman and agreed to maintain a “board norm” that assigns most media interactions to a single representative of the five elected school board members.
The norm was recently criticized in a letter from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
The New Mexico School Board Association estimates that 75 percent of school boards in the state appoint a single spokesperson to speak on behalf of the board.
“The standard does not prohibit board members from speaking to the press, as suggested to me in both the recent New Mexican editorial and the letter of concern we received from the new Mexican Foundation for Open Government.” their appointment.
Ortiz encouraged members to proceed with the norm on Thursday, arguing that members who speak independently to the media could create an “advanced” polling situation in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
He also said that the board should function “as a unit”, not as five units.
“There is actually an enormous risk that each of you will be talking and doing your own thing and going in any direction, that people will be confused about what you have accomplished, what you have decided,” Ortiz said.
He added, “This is not a disservice to your community. It is a disservice to the newspaper that you don’t speak to them sooner, that you don’t speak to them when they want to. “
Before Noble, a former journalist, suggested Boses as spokesperson, she described recent media coverage of the board norm as “flat” and admitted that the issue of board transparency was heavily burdened her.
“This has been a difficult task and I really want to stress that we have to keep improving and advancing the issue of transparency and asking how I believe we have really done it in a considerable way,” said Noble.
Board Vice Presidents Rudy Garcia, Anderson and Gonzales approved the decision to maintain the board norm on Thursday.
Anderson, a communications consultant, said a spokesman would reduce “noise” but added that there will be times when it may be important for her to provide “insight” to a journalist in the future.
The board members also decided to evaluate Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez on January 29th. Chavez is halfway through his year-long contract and after the evaluation, the board of directors will decide if he wants to extend his tenure.
Also on Thursday, the board saw a presentation of the district’s financial plan and unanimously passed a resolution in support of promoting higher education, vocational and technical education across the district by providing high schoolers with more work-based education along with dual credit options.