LOS LUNAS — The two-day New Mexico Public Education Department hearing for the five suspended members of the Los Lunas Board of Education concluded Tuesday, Aug. 24, after the board members and their representation were able to call six witnesses — including all the suspended board members — to testify under oath.
On May 26, the entire five-member board — Bryan Smith, Eloy Giron, Frank Otero, Steven Otero and David Vickers — was suspended by 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.”
Although only “certain board members” were accused of violating state statute, the public education department is only able to suspend all of the board members or none.
NMPED 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.
Steinhaus 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.
The first two witnesses called on Tuesday by Smith and Giron’s legal representative, Joseph Goldberg, were Smith and Giron themselves.
Both of them denied nearly all allegations against them, including intimidation of district employees and all other accusations made by PED resulting in the suspension.
During the hearing, Giron did express regret for a statement he made to a district employee during a school board meeting, resulting in a complaint being filed against him with the district.
According to Giron, during a December school board meeting, he used the word “bunny suit” to describe PPE that needed to be used by students who may have needed to utilize the school for an in-person specialized education program, despite closures in place during that time.
“I felt that I needed to advocate for this lady,” he said during his testimony. “I said something and it came out wrong.”
Frank Otero was also called to the stand by Giron and Smith’s legal representative, where he also denied any wrongdoing on his part.
Otero, Giron and Smith all maintained the board was “more active, more vocal and (more) questioning of financial expenditures,” resulting in the chagrin of former superintendent Dana Sanders, her cabinet and some district employees.
“I have strived in my life to do what is right and just…I take great pride in my integrity,” Smith said during his testimony. “I work to be the best and I push others to do the same.”
Vickers called himself and only himself to testify on his behalf, where he went through the accusations made against the board by PED line by line, unofficially correcting the language to exclude himself from the allegations.
He also provided examples of his pushback against the alleged behaviors of the board resulting in the suspension of all five members.
“I certainly did take action in open board meetings,” Vickers said. “I did not file complaints… but I did express my objections and those are in the record of the meeting.”
While he concurred the other board members were heavily questioning many expenditures in the school district, he said their actions verged on micromanagement and were not fully the school board’s responsibility.
“The questioning of every little thing was intimidating, micromanaging and quite honestly a waste of time,” he said.
Steven Otero also called upon himself to testify on his own behalf, standing by his actions as the right course to take for the benefit of the district.
Both Seven Otero and Vickers filed on Tuesday to run for their seats on the school board — districts 5 and 3 respectively — which were regularly scheduled to appear on the ballot in November.
The witness who testified in addition to the five suspended board members was Michael Griego, serving as a character witness for both Giron and Smith
He was quickly dismissed by the hearing officer after he determined Griego’s testimony contributed no new information to the case.
The hearing officer also denied the testimony of a second character witness for Giron and Smith.
The first day of the hearing was held on Wednesday, July 28, with only four witnesses called by the representation for the NMPED, despite being an all day affair.
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.
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.
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.
Garcia was questioned about the alleged retaliation of Steven Otero against the maintenance department following the district passing him as a prospective employee in 2018.
NMPED and Interim Sec. Steinhaus should have a decision regarding the suspension by Tuesday, Aug. 31, as per state statute.