Questa school board OKs four-day week

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The Questa Independent Schools Board of Education met in a three-hour executive session Tuesday night (May 9) in part to discuss the district superintendent's evaluation, but no decision on changing her contract was made.

The long executive session, held before the rest of the agenda in an unusual move, was halted only long enough to honor the 2017 state champion Questa High School varsity cheer squad.

The closed session pushed the public portion of the meeting late into the night, prompting the school board to postpone most of the agenda. It was the second time some of the items had been postponed, following a raucous meeting in April during which Daryl Ortega, board president, had to remind board members and audience alike of the rules and conduct of public meetings.

Items discussed in the executive session Tuesday night included limited personnel matters and threatened or pending litigation by a parent of a district student, which neither the board nor district officials commented on following the meeting.

In one of its few other actions after the executive session ended, the board voted 4-1 to approve a four-day school week in an attempt to save costs for the upcoming 2017-18 school year, which was met by applause from teachers and members of the public at the meeting.

"We need to continue to move this district forward and the only way we can do that is through a teamwork approach," said district Superintendent Valerie Trujillo.

Yet despite the efforts of officials to bring the district together, members of the community waiting in the hallway while the closed session was underway expressed a growing distrust of the board to The Taos News and noted that the board's decision to hold an executive session before the bulk of the meeting seemed to be a lack of respect for constituents and students present for the meeting. In addition, one concerned parent expressed doubt in the board's legitimacy following Ortega's re-election to the board after being removed from power by the state Public Education Department in 2012.

According to The Taos News archives, in 2012, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera suspended authority from the QIS board based on allegations against three of its members, including Ortega. Ortega also faced issues from his fellow school board members when they voted 4-1 in 2016 to censure him, publicly condemning him and alleging he improperly used his authority as a school board member to influence contract negotiations to benefit his family in addition to being improperly involved with attempting to influence disciplinary matters of students and personal matters of the staff.

"It's caused such a dark cloud in Questa that it's becoming hard to live here," said 1992 Questa High School graduate Lorenzo Ortega. "I don't think this board is in [a] place to help our kids and improve our district. I think a lot of our board members are here to get things done on their own agenda."

Ortega's mother, Rosaline Ortega, currently sits on the school board and her son said he wanted to attend the meeting to see how affairs and business were conducted in the meetings.

The Taos News attempted to reach Daryl Ortega Wednesday (May 10) by phone and email for comment. Reached once by phone, Ortega said he had no comment and hung up.

Teachers at Tuesday's meeting showed up in support of the four-day work schedule and to oppose a recent action from the board to reduce the eligibility requirements for student athletes in the district. The board voted last month to lower the eligibility requirements for QIS athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA and allow one "F" for students to participate in sports. The minimum is set by the New Mexico Activities Association, according to Trujillo. The school's standards were above the minimum requirement.

"We had high expectations and held higher standards, but at this point, we reduced it to the minimum," said Trujillo. "As an educator for 20 years, I strongly believe we need to hold students to higher standards."

Although Trujillo made a recommendation to the board not to pass the minimum GPA action, she acknowledges the board's decision and says she respects the outcome of the 3-2 vote.

The board's next meeting will be a special meeting to be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday (May 17) at the Administrative Office Boardroom.

Correction: This story was corrected from the original version to reflect that Ortega was not yet board president in 2016 when his fellow board members censured him. 

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