BELEN — After 22-plus years with Belen Consolidated Schools, Diane Vallejos is stepping away from education.
Last month, Vallejos informed the Belen Board of Education she intended to retire at the end of the school year, in 2021, due to upcoming changes in the public educators retiree health plan.
Vallejos got board approval last week to use her accumulated leave — 150-plus days — which means she will be on vacation for the remainder of her contract.
“Initially, I didn’t realize how far out the 150 days would take me. I thought I would scatter them out — take a Monday or Friday off,” Vallejos said. “My intention was to use them intermittently until the end of June.”
During her leave, while the board conducts its search for a new superintendent, Belen High School Principal Lawrence Sanchez has been named acting superintendent.
By announcing her retirement months in advance, Vallejos felt it and would give the board enough time to do a proper superintendent search.
Applications for the position are due by Friday, Nov. 20, and the board hopes to select a new superintendent at its Tuesday, Dec. 8, meeting.
Vallejos said being on leave won’t be an extra financial burden to the district.
“The agreement we have is that I will remain on leave so there’s no payout, no buying me out,” she said. “I do get to keep intact what I’ve earned.”
With her last day on Friday, Oct. 30, Vallejos said she will now have time to finish some quilting projects and spend time with family.
“I will still be connected to the district for some special projects, like Principals Pursuing Excellence. I’ll still be around,” she said. “Any position I’ve moved on from, I’ve never wanted (the next) person to feel like they had to reinvent anything. We’ve come a long way with things and working for the district for as long as I have, I have a lot of the history.”
A Belen High School graduate, Vallejos was selected as superintendent in April 2019 after serving two months as interim superintendent.
Vallejos was the district director of special education from 2010 to 2015 before being named executive director of academics until 2016.
She also served as principal of La Promesa Elementary from 2005-10, was the program specialist for the special education department from 2003-05, and the IEP facilitator and a special education teacher at H.T. Jaramillo and Dennis Chavez elementary schools from 2000-03.
“As a district, we’ve evolved, and we’re not done evolving,” she said. “When I hire students I taught, I realize, this goes on. It’s beyond me.”
During her career as a teacher, Vallejos said she was lucky enough to see something twice that most teachers never experience — a student realizing they can read.
“That typically happens at home, so you don’t see it. But to see that light bulb go off, oh yeah …,” she said, smiling widely. “That’s something you will never take away from them.”
When asked what she will miss most, Vallejos paused for a while.
“I love education,” she finally said through tears. “Whether it’s teaching Lawrence how to be a superintendent, or teaching kids, it’s incredible. Our kids are incredible.”
At last week’s board meeting, board president Lisa Chavez nominated Sanchez as acting superintendent and was seconded by board member Jim Danner.
Yvonne Tabet, BCS human resources director, was nominated by board member Larry Lindberg and seconded by board secretary Max Cordova.
Sanchez’s appointment as acting superintendent was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Chavez, Danner and board member Aubrey Tucker voting yes, and Lindberg and Cordova voting no.
Tucker said there were many factors he considered in his decision and both candidates were very talented.
Lindberg and Cordova both said they would have preferred the board follow the district’s formal chain of command and appoint Tabet as acting superintendent.
Saying he likes challenges and is loyal to the district, Sanchez wanted to help any way he could.
“My role is to keep the positive things going and not to let this transition stop those good things,” Sanchez said.
It’s no secret that Sanchez is interested in the superintendent position and will be applying, he said.
“If I don’t get it and I’m at BHS in January, that’s OK. I have a great staff there and I love working with them; they are doing great things,” he said. “If it’s not my time, I get to go back to a job I love.”
With Vallejos’s retirement, Chavez said the board felt there was no reason to delay searching for the best possible candidate.
“Our students, families and employees are facing unprecedented and difficult times, yet they continue to persevere in regards to the educational process,” Chavez said. “We’ve heard there is movement (among administrators) statewide and there may be an opportunity to get some really strong candidates at this time. There’s no reason to wait.
“Superintendent Vallejos has been very supportive in this transition and has said she will be available as needed, which the board appreciates.”
The board president said with superintendent evaluations being typically conducted this time of year, to see movement mid-school year isn’t’ unusual.
“Now is when people are looking. Looking back, I don’t think anyone thought we’d find ourselves in this position,” she said. “She’s retired and on extended leave; we need someone on a daily basis.”
At the same time, BCS is hunting for a new head administrator, so is Los Lunas Schools. The Los Lunas Board of Education has also set an aggressive time line to replace former superintendent Dana Sanders. Applications are due Tuesday, Dec. 1, with the goal of having the successful candidate onboard by January.
To have both districts looking for superintendents at the same time is unusual, Chavez said, but it isn’t necessarily a detriment.
“There is so much potential here in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “It would be amazing for this valley to attract two quality superintendents; that would have such a big impact on the community.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.