UPDATE: On Friday, May 20, Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero told the Valencia County News-Bulletin that First Judicial District Court Judge Maria Sanchez-Gagne held an emergency expedited hearing late Thursday afternoon to enter the order confirming her May 17 ruling, which reinstated suspended members Bryan Smith, District 4, and Eloy Giron, District 2, to the Los Lunas Board of Education.
Ragon Espinoza and Sonya C’Moya, the appointed board members for those districts, respectively, were told they were not longer on the board following the Thursday, May 19, hearing, Romero said.
The board will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 24, before of its regular meeting to reorganize the board – select a board president, vice president and secretary – and appoint members to board committees. Smith and Giron will not need to be sworn in since they were sworn in at the beginning of their elected terms in January of 2020.
Final order of reinstatement: Bryan Smith, Eloy Giron
LOS LUNAS — After an appeal hearing on Tuesday, a judge ruled suspended Los Lunas Schools Board of Education members Eloy Giron and Bryan Smith be reinstated to their elected positions.
First Judicial District Court Judge Maria Sanchez-Gagne said while the New Mexico Public Education Department did act within the scope of its authority and did not act fraudulently in their decision to permanently suspend Giron and Smith, the public education secretary not consulting with the Public Education Commission prior to the 2021 suspension effectively reverses the initial decision for the appellants.
The New Mexico Public Education Commission is the authorization and oversight board for New Mexico charter schools; however, according to state statute, the secretary may only suspend a local school board “after consultation with the commission.”
The statute NMSA 22-2-14, which is pursuant to suspension procedures for local school boards, does not explain why the secretary must consult with the commission prior to a suspension, it simply states they shall.
The News-Bulletin asked the New Mexico Public Education Department when Giron and Smith will resume their seats, and whether the department has plans to appeal the decision. Judy Robinson, the deputy communications director for NMPED, said they are waiting until their lawyers have a chance to review the judge’s final decision before making a statement on the matter.
Sanchez-Gagne has not yet filed her final decision.
On May 26, 2021, NMPED announced the indefinite suspension of all five members of the Los Lunas Board of Education — which included both Giron and Smith — 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.”
The initial suspension was then made permanent in August 2021 after the department held two days of hearings for the suspended board on July 28 and August 24 of last year.
Los Lunas Board of Education members Sonya C. Moya of District 2 and Ragon Espinoza of District 4 currently hold the seats in which Giron and Smith were elected, respectively. They were appointed to the seats in January — C’Moya by PED and Espinoza by the three members of the board of education, which included Moya.
Seats for Districts 3 and 5 appeared on the election ballot in 2021, with the people voting in David Vickers and Bruce Bennett to those seats. Vickers previously served on the school board with Giron and Smith and was one of the five suspended members.
Steven Otero, the suspended board member from District 5, ran and lost reelection to his seat during the 2021 election. He is currently facing two criminal counts of violation of ethical principles of public service, a misdemeanor, for his time on the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education starting at the beginning of 2020. He did not appeal PED’s decision.
Frank Otero, the suspended, former board member from District 1, also did not appeal PED’s decision to make the suspension permanent and is therefore not a part of the reinstatement. However, in PED’s finding of fact as a result of the hearing, said Frank Otero and Vickers did not participate in any wrongdoing, stating “they appear to be innocent bystanders in the crossfire.”
“I had earned my position on the board — I was in my 11th year,” Otero told the News-Bulletin in August following the permanent suspension. “I had been the president three different times through the years… It’s just, it’s not right what they did to me.”
Joe Goldberg, the legal representative for Giron and Smith, argued the failure to consult the New Mexico Public Education Commission prior to the indefinite suspension in May nullifies PED’s decision. He added the department relied on “hearsay” during the suspension hearings to reinforce their decision.
“Corroborated hearsay does not adhere to substantial evidence,” he said to the judge.
The attorney for the New Mexico Public Education Department asked for the criminal information in relation to misdemeanors filed against Steven Otero be entered into evidence. Dan Gershon, the department’s lawyer, argued the information relevant as grounds to suspend the 2020 Los Lunas Board of Education, since the department can only suspend the board as a whole.
Goldberg said the New Mexico State Police investigation was “by definition hearsay,” and “irrelevant.” The judge did not admit the information into evidence.
“All of the evidence here goes to one member, Mr. Steven Otero, and he is the one who is subject to the criminal misdemeanor,” Goldberg said. “What the department wants to do is guilt by association.”
According to the findings of fact in which PED upheld their decision, “there is no evidence (Smith) intended to threaten anybody,” and “none of the administrators claimed to be fearful of Mr. Giron.”
The findings of fact also stated, “A number of individuals complained about a number of letters/memos that were submitted by various individuals complaining primarily about Steve Otero and to a lesser extent, Mr. Giron.”
However, they also said panic buttons were installed at central office “for concerned staff members who feared ‘the wrath of Mr. (Steven) Otero and Mr. Giron.’”
A pretrial conference in relation to the misdemeanor charges against Steven Otero is scheduled in the 13th Judicial District Court in Grants at 4 p.m., Thursday, June 23.
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.