LOS LUNAS — Former Los Lunas Board of Education member Frank Otero expressed discontent about the process after another person was appointed to the remaining two years of his term.
Otero, who held the District 1 seat, was a part of the five-member Los Lunas Board of Education which was permanently suspended in August 2021.
However, findings of fact from the late-summer public hearings by the New Mexico Public Education Department concluded Frank Otero and District 3 board member P. David Vickers “appeared to be innocent bystanders in the crossfire.”
“I had earned my position on the board — I was in my 11th year,” Otero said. “I had been the president three different times through the years. Sonya C’Moya was never the president of a school board and she was never — well I could go on and on about her, but it’s just, it’s not right what they did to me.”
Vickers, whose term officially ended at the end of 2021, was reelected to his seat in November and sworn in at the beginning of this year. Bruce Bennett, who served on the Los Lunas Schools governing committee, which was appointed to run the district in the interim, was elected to the District 5 seat, previously held by Steven Otero.
To create a quorum for the 2022 Los Lunas Board of Education, the New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Kurt Steinhaus appointed C’Moya to the District 2 seat. She served on and was president of the Los Lunas Schools Governing Committee.
According to New Mexico state statute, PED has the authority to appoint individuals to local school boards “in the event vacancies occur in a majority of the full membership.”
While the rest of the appointed members of the governing committee were decided through an application process, C’Moya was appointed outright by now-former NMPED secretary Ryan Stewart, just days following the announcement of the previous board’s initial suspension.
According to a statement from NMPED, Steinhaus appointed C’Moya to the District 2 school board seat —formerly held by Eloy Giron — because she was president of the governing committee and because he believed she was doing a “good job.”
Vickers, Bennett and C’Moya voted on Jan. 4 to appoint Tina Garcia and Ragon Espinoza, who both served on the Los Lunas Schools governing committee, to Districts 1 and 4, respectively. The newly-reconstituted board of education has not yet selected a president or vice president.
“Both of these people (Garcia and Espinoza) have already applied for this position in competition with other people. They were vetted and interviewed by the state secretary at that time and they were chosen,” Vickers said on Jan. 4, after making a motion to appoint Garcia and Espinoza. “… It would simply make sense to have them continue in these positions until the end of the term, which will be 2023.”
Moya said while the board had not outright discussed or decided to forgo the application process, appointing Garcia and Espinoza, prior to Vickers making the motion, she agreed it was the best path for the board to take.
“I asked Secretary Steinhaus myself if we could appoint — yes we can appoint — or if we had to go through the process,” Moya said. “The process would have been lengthy again, I don’t have the resources that PED does to be able to do background checks and interviews … Since we had two individuals that basically had already been vetted and their references checked, had participated in numerous hours — I can’t state this enough — numerous hours of training, unpaid, on their own time.”
Moya stressed the various training the governing committee participating in, such as boardmanship, board ethics and the operation functions of school boards, as well as learning about the individual departments in the district.
“To bring two new people, out of nowhere, up to speed with what we were doing and how we are going forward, I think would have been disruptive to the district,” she said. “This is a high functioning, educated and ethical board. I can honestly state that this governing committee, which is now a formal board of education, is probably one of the best-trained boards I’ve served on and I think it’s one of the most prepared to assist Dr. Romero in leading the district.”
“I feel like there is a flaw with the law, and I really didn’t want to pursue a legal avenue, but I may just have to,” Otero told the News-Bulletin. “In my mind, from the evidence that I’ve been able to gather, there’s no local control anymore.”
Otero said if the board had opened the District 1 and 4 seats up for community applications, he would have thrown his name in the hat, even though he feels he should be able to serve for the remainder of his term.
In addition to the findings of fact, Otero received an email from NMPED attorney Dan Gershon, who represented the department in the public hearings following the suspension of the board, on Aug. 19, 2021, which stated (Frank Otero) and Vickers were not the ones being investigated in the matter.
“As you know, I represent NMPED with regard to the suspension of the school board,” Gershon wrote in the email addressed to Otero. “You and Dave Vickers have not been identified as the school board members who may have violated any statute, rule or policy.”
Following the August permanent suspension, Steinhaus told the News-Bulletin after discussing the matter with attorneys, he came to the conclusion he could only legally suspend the entire board, with no authority to absolve individuals.
When asked why he didn’t appeal PED’s decision to permanently suspend the entirety of the school board for the actions of the three members, Otero said it’s less about the position and more about his reputation.
“I’m not going to invest all that money for a school board position — it’s not worth it. It’s all about my reputation and that’s where I’ve been considering legal avenues,” he said. “Even though they have cleared me, they really haven’t cleared me … They have failed to prove to the community that I’m an honorable person.
“I was just fed up with the game playing. I just said what I had to say. I didn’t hire an attorney because I didn’t do anything wrong. Why make that commitment if I didn’t do anything wrong?”
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.