After a rather public feud between a Los Lunas Schools superintendent and the board of education, a civil lawsuit has been filed by former LLS superintendent Dana Sanders.
The complaint, filed Nov. 12, alleges the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education engaged in improper employment practices and retaliation. The lawsuit also names board president Bryan Smith, secretary Steven Otero and vice president Eloy Giron individually in their official capacities.
The lawsuit accuses the board of retaliating against Sanders for her refusal to use her position to fulfill certain member’s “personal desires and/or vendettas” against district employees.
Sanders alleges she suffered harassment and disparate treatment because she would not go along with “unlawful acts requested and/or perpetrated by … Smith, Otero and Giron.”
In a written statement to the News-Bulletin, Smith said the lawsuit has been turned over to the school board’s insurance carrier and attorneys for review and analysis.
“Some of the allegations presented in the suit are the subject of pending litigation, and as a result the school board cannot comment further on them without its attorney’s input,” Smith wrote. “… the matters addressed in the suit are presented from the viewpoint of the complainant, and not the result of a thorough review or investigation of the circumstances … the school board is constrained not to respond until the facts underlying these claims are more fully developed.”
In a statement to the News-Bulletin about the lawsuit, Sanders said, “I am just trying to make sure the community is apprised of the concerns regarding actions of the board, and hold them accountable for their retaliation against me.”
Sanders, who was named superintendent in July 2014, claims Smith has continuously worked to remove her since he was elected in February 2015.
Sanders claims Giron and Otero, who were elected in November 2019, began making demands of her that were outside their authority as board members, and accuses Otero of attempting to sway her decisions by holding his vote to keep her as superintendent over her head.
In New Mexico, boards of education have direct power to hire and fire only one district employee — the superintendent.
The lawsuit alleges Otero requested Sanders demote, eliminate and/or retitle employees.
“He wanted certain vendors removed from doing business with the (district) for personal reasons,” the lawsuit reads.
Sanders says Giron also asked her to fire two specific district employees, which she said she couldn’t do without a verifiable reason.
After the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the lawsuit alleges board members emailed Sanders with “direct demands” to do things contrary to the measures she’d already taken to keep things running smoothly in the district.
“Members of the board were constantly attempting to coerce (Sanders) in the management of the schools,” the lawsuit reads.
Sanders says she received multiple communications questioning almost every action she made about handling the district and the COVID-19 situation.
On April 3, she told the board she needed 30 days medical leave. Within two hours, Smith had called for an executive session at the board’s April 6 meeting to name an acting superintendent.
“The current acting superintendent was contacted in January of 2020 to take over (Sanders’) position as superintendent,” the lawsuit says.
Sanders was placed on paid administrative leave on April 23.
On June 16, the board announced Sanders had been discharged from employment, however she remained on the district payroll for nearly two more months before the board accepted her retirement on Aug. 11.
According to the lawsuit, Sanders received a hand-delivered notice of intent to discharge written by Smith on Aug. 6, the same day the News-Bulletin published an article about Sanders still being on the district’s payroll despite being discharged.
Sanders’ attorney, A. Blair Dunn, argues the notice of discharge includes many false and misleading statements, including a repeated assertion that she was “not fit for public employment anywhere ever.”
He also notes a special financial audit requested by the district in June, which didn’t support any wrongdoing by Sanders, was received by the state Office of the State Auditor on Aug. 24, and cited extensively in the Aug. 6 notice of discharge.
Sanders is seeking “all lawfully recoverable damages” as decided by a jury, as well as the cost of her attorney and any other relief the court rules appropriate.
As of Tuesday, Dec. 8, the district has not filed a response to Sander’s lawsuit.
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.