LOS LUNAS — After nearly seven hours of questioning only a handful of witnesses, a public hearing for the Los Lunas Board of Education, which was suspended by the New Mexico Public Education Department in May, adjourned until late August.
The first day of the hearing was held on Wednesday, July 28, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and adjourning at 4:30 p.m. The hearing will continue on Tuesday, Aug. 24.
The legal representative for NMPED, Dan Gershon, was only able to call four witnesses, who were then cross-examined by attorney Joseph Goldberg, who represents board members Eloy Giron and Bryan Smith. Board members Steven Otero, Frank Otero and David Vickers represented themselves during the hearing and also had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.
NMPED has five business days following the conclusion of the hearing to either “make permanent, withdraw or modify” the order of suspension for the Los Lunas School Board of Education, as stated in the New Mexico Administrative Code. The board has the ability to appeal any decision made by NMPED and the secretary of education to the 13th Judicial District Court.
On May 26, the entire five-member board was suspended by now-former PED Secretary Ryan Stewart due to “credible evidence that certain board members have persistently violated procurement and public access laws, the state Public School Code, and professional ethical standards.”
Stewart appointed John Ziegler, an attorney with Woodcock & Ziegler, P.C, as the independent hearing officer to oversee the proceeding. Within two business days following the conclusion of the hearing, Ziegler will submit his “findings of fact” from evidence presented at the hearing to NMPED interim Sec. Kurt Steinhaus, who was appointed to the position by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on July 29 after Stewart stepped down to tend to “family health issues.”
Steinhaus will make the final decision regarding the suspended board after Ziegler issues his findings of facts.
Although only “certain board members” were accused of violating state statute, Stewart said the department is only able to suspend all of the board members or none.
“These aren’t actions that we take lightly because we believe in the ability of local school boards to govern their local districts,” Stewart told the News-Bulletin in the days following the suspension. “It really just got to the point where, even though we warned them, we kept seeing these behaviors and actions continue. We had no choice but to make that suspension.”
Walt Gibson, former Los Lunas Schools superintendent and interim superintendent under the suspended board, Steve Moore, with Organic Technologies LLC; Claire Ciermans, LLS chief financial officer; and Andy Garcia, LLS director of construction and maintenance, were the four witnesses called by PED out of the 14 potential witnesses listed.
Gibson spoke about his experience with the board as interim superintendent following the board placing superintendent Dana Sanders on administrative leave.
During the questioning, Gibson discussed the REDW audit that board member Steven Otero pushed for, looking into the spending of the maintenance department, adding that he brought up questions of legality. Gibson said he “regularly” advised the board against using the legal services of Himes, Petrarca & Fester and attorney Andrew Sanchez because they were not under contact with the district.
Smith used the Himes, Petrarca & Fester law firm during his recall proceedings last year. The effort was eventually dismissed by the 13th Judicial District Court.
Moore, who owns Organic Technologies, contracted with Los Lunas Schools tending to sports fields, spoke about a previous encounter he had with Steven Otero while Otero was facilities manager with the Moriarty School District.
According to Moore, Otero told him about a possible contract with Moriarity Schools, but allegedly asked, “What’s in it for me?” if the contract was awarded to Organic Technologies. When Moore replied he did not do business in that manner, Organic Technologies was not awarded the contract with the district.
He added that although his business had worked with Los Lunas Schools for many years, his contract was not renewed following Otero’s election to the Los Lunas Board of Education in January 2020.
Ciermans spoke about her personal experience with the board and a complaint she filed with the superintendent in March 2021 reporting fear, threats and further retaliation.
She said she oversaw the committee that worked on the hiring for the maintenance department in which Otero applied for a position in 2018. He was not hired for the position, and afterward Ciermans said she heard through the community that “heads were going to roll” if Otero were elected to the board.
Ciermans was one of several individuals working at LLS central office who requested Gibson install panic buttons since she was fearful of Giron, who she reported “harassed, targeted, defamed, slandered, retaliated against and threatened” her since January 2020.
“I am in a hostile work environment and absolutely fear for my health, wellbeing and safety of myself, my children and my family.” Ciermans wrote in the letter.
Ciermans also testified she advised the board to not use the Himes law firm and the services of Sanchez since neither had a contract with the district.
Garcia was questioned about the alleged retaliation of Otero against the maintenance department following the district passing him as a prospective employee in 2018.
“There was personal vendetta against me this whole time,” Garcia said about Otero during the hearing.
According to Garcia, the “vendetta” eventually led to the REDW audit, which found no wrongdoing in the maintenance budget and purchases. Otero alleged Garcia and the maintenance department were purchasing unneeded supplies causing extraneous spending, resulting in the audit.
Smith and Giron both requested the hearing for all five members of the board, which is their right under state statute.