LOS LUNAS — A local superintendent is publicly airing her grievances about some board of education members, saying in some cases they blatantly disregarded the law and violated employees’ rights.
Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Dana Sanders released a letter containing complaints against some members of the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education, which she sent to each of the board members and multiple local news organizations, including the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
“You have lied to the public in addition to your blatant disregard for the law, not to mention your intentional violation of employee rights all for personal vendettas and personal gain,” the letter says. “Your abuse of power has become so evident that I can no longer remain silent.”
Sanders stated in the letter she has received no explanation as to why she was put on administrative leave on Friday, April 17, and felt when the board requested more medical documentation, they were using that as a stall tactic until they could put her on administrative leave.
Board of Education President Bryan Smith said the board sent Sanders a letter on April 22 detailing why she was on administrative leave.
The News-Bulletin filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the district for the e-mails between school board members and Sanders pertaining to her request for leave.
According to the emails turned over in response to the IPRA request, on Friday, April 3, Sanders sent an e-mail to all board members stating she was taking medical leave.
The next day, she e-mailed the board members again, saying she would be filling out the Family and Medical Leave Act paperwork on Monday, April 6, and she’d be requesting four weeks off out of the 12 weeks allowed under the act.
On Sunday, April 5, she e-mailed the board members and said she would be able to return sooner than the 30 days and would provide the proper medical paperwork so she could return.
During a special Los Lunas Schools board meeting on April 6, the board requested additional medical documents from Sanders.
Smith said the board received the medical documentation on Tuesday, April 7, and requested a fitness for duty test in addition to the documentation.
“As your original medical documentation is in such contrast with the most recent documentation, the Board of Education will require a fitness for duty determination of your current medical status before you can return to work in any capacity,” Smith wrote to Sanders on April 8.
Sanders asked that she receive the questionnaire in time for her to return to work on April 22. Smith replied, saying at that time her duties remained unchanged in that she had been “relieved of her duties.”
Another point Sanders raised in her letter was what she believed to be violations of the Open Meetings Act.
“Gentlemen you have continually violated the Open Meetings Act by falsely stating to the public that you have ‘anticipated’ litigation, which is not an exception under the law,” Sanders wrote. “The exceptions under the law are pending or threatened litigation. Neither of which is the case.”
Board member David Vickers brought up this same point at the beginning of the Thursday, April 16 special meeting.
“The phrase ‘in anticipation of litigation,’ does that mean we have received a threat of litigation?” Vickers asked during the meeting.
Attorney Andy Sanchez said there was not any pending litigation, but said it was to address claims that could potentially end up in litigation.
Vickers said he looked at the New Mexico Attorney General’s commentary on the OMA, and said he did not feel comfortable moving forward with that wording.
“I’d like the record to show that I do not agree with that wording and there’s also a credible threat of the attorney general finding that our closed session was illegal,” Vickers said.
Sanchez said he understood his concerns but noted it made more sense to prepare in advance for something like that before it actually happens.
“These kinds of discussions have been happening between boards and their board counsels for a very long time, and it has proven to be more valuable to obtain legal advice to address these potential issues before they become litigation.
“It makes no sense to actually wait until you’re in a lawsuit before you seek legal advice,” Sanchez said.
In a phone interview on Monday, May 18, Sanders said she had never expressed to the school board members that she planned to pursue legal action.
“In fact I had told them on multiple occasions that I do not have an attorney, I had not threatened litigation,” Sanders said.
In the four-page letter, Sanders spoke specifically of three board members — Smith, Steven Otero and Eloy Giron — saying they attempt to micromanage the day-to-day operations of the district.
“Not once did I micromanage. We asked a lot of questions, we asked where our shortfalls and where we could correct them, that’s part of the job. That might have offended her but I did not feel like we were micromanaging,” Giron said.
Sanders wrote that Smith has berated and threatened her for changing his wife’s job duties when (his wife) worked for the district. Sanders said she filed a complaint with the board about that incident, as well as complaints against other board members, but didn’t get a response from Smith.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, May 19, the board president said it was “unfortunate that it had to be made into personal attacks (in the letter), that from what I’ve heard, I seriously question the accuracy in. I am going to choose to remain professional and focused on what’s best for these kids, this staff and this community. That’s exactly why I’m here.”
Smith said, as of Tuesday, he has not yet read the letter from Sanders but intends to.
In her letter, Sanders says when she filed a formal complaint against Giron for “berating” her decision making in a public board meeting, Smith ignored it.
“In fact, several other employee complaints against Steven Otero and Eloy Giron, that were also given to Board President Smith, fell on deaf ears too,” Sanders wrote.
Both Otero and Giron said these complaints filed by district employees were only a matter of opinion and they did not agree with what the complaints stated.
Also in Sanders’ letter was the implication that Otero was attempting to retaliate against a specific department that did not hire him.
“…Which leaves one to deduce that he must have a personal reason for his continued attempts to make the maintenance department and its supervisors look bad,” Sanders wrote. “Those same supervisors did not hire him for a job he wanted in 2018, a job he has told me he deserved.”
Otero said his intent is not to target or retaliate against the maintenance department.
“That is totally inaccurate. I worked for the school district for 19 years. The bottom line is, facilities is my background so I will be more concentrated on them, I have a lot of knowledge and experience with that,” Otero said in response to the accusations in the letter. “People shouldn’t say you’re targeting something when in fact you’re doing your job. Once the investigation is done and over with, it’ll show that my concerns and inquiries were all valid.”
On April 21, the board approved a contract with REDW, an Albuquerque accounting firm to perform a financial investigation.
“The reason the board considered a financial investigator was to remove the board from dealing directly with the administration,” Smith said in a Tuesday, March 28, email. “We do not have a list of specific concerns at this time as we just approved the investigation last board meeting. The board is working to be good stewards of the taxpayer money.”
In reference to the accusations of Otero retaliating against the people who did not hire him, Otero suggested an alternative reason for not being hired.
“I am not retaliating. I think I was not hired because I knew too much, and I was privy to information that I believe the school district wouldn’t want to come out. Now as a board member, I can bring it up,” Otero said.
Otero was hired at Los Lunas Schools in 1989 as a licensed plumber and said he worked the last few years of his time there as a maintenance supervisor and then a construction manager.