LOS LUNAS — All five members of a local elected board have been indefinitely suspended from office by a state agency due to a litany of findings in its most recent audit.
The New Mexico Public Education Department announced Wednesday, May 26, all five members of the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education have been suspended.
“The entire Los Lunas school board has been suspended due to credible evidence that certain members have persistently violated procurement and public access laws, the state Public School Code, and professional ethical standards,” according to a press release sent out by PED today.
In the press release, PED listed 16 categorized concerns and potential violations by the board, including:
• Violations of the Open Meetings Act
• Violations of the Inspection of Public Records Act
• Violations of the Procurement Code
• Attempting to extort vendors by implying they would get a contract if they would “personally enrich a board member”
• Addressing a district employee in a threatening manner during a board meeting
• Falsifying allegations of financial misconduct of a school personnel and much more
The release called the suspension indefinite and it is not known at this time whether the members will be permanently removed from the board or able to carry out the rest of their terms.
The seats of Steven Otero and David Vickers are up for election in November.
With the board members’ suspension, Los Lunas Superintendent Arsenio Romero will be reporting directly to Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart until further notice.
“Our daily operations are not going to be affected,” Romero said. “I’ve got wonderful principals, wonderful central office staff, wonderful teachers. My goal is to make sure that from a parent or student point of view, they are not going to notice any difference.”
Romero added when he last spoke to Stewart, a new board of education will be instated by the secretary prior to the next scheduled board meeting on Tuesday, June 15.
In a statement issued by the school district, Romero said more information on the transition to a new board will be published on its website as it becomes known from PED.
“Just like we got through our pandemic together, we’re going to get through this together,” superintendent Romero said.
Now former board member Steven Otero told the News-Bulletin Wednesday PED had not contacted the school board in relation to the concerns leading to their suspension, adding he feels the suspension was “unwarranted.”
“The ones that are hurting by all this action are children in the school district because we, as a board, try to do everything we do, make every decision we make — be it by financial or policy — taking the best interest of our kids into consideration,” Otero said. “Really, we have not been given any opportunity to address any of these accusations by PED.”
Otero said three board members, including himself, were “targeted by individuals in the system … it’s been ongoing since we got elected, for me at least, it’s been ongoing.”
PED did inform the board of its concerns through a letter addressed to then-board president Bryan Smith and former Los Lunas interim superintendent Walter Gibson from secretary Stewart in November 2020.
“You are directed to take immediate action to discontinue any improper conduct, as described above,” Stewart wrote in the letter. “Violations of the above-cited laws may result in the suspension and takeover of your board of finance … or the suspension and takeover of the Los Lunas School Board.”
In the letter to the board members informing them of their suspension, Secretary Stewart wrote prior to and following that November 2020 letter, the board members received training on the laws they allegedly violated.
“Despite having received the letter in November and training in January and February, certain board members persisted in engaging in improper conduct in violation of the above-cited laws, as well as … the Los Lunas Schools Board policies, and the (New Mexico School Board Association) Code of Ethics,” Stewart wrote.
Former board member Frank Otero, who has served on and off on the board since 2007, said he was not one of the board members which raised the concerns highlighted by PED.
“When we do good, we all do good. When we do bad, we all do bad,” Frank Otero said. “And I stand by my reputation.”
Both Frank Otero and Steve Otero told the News-Bulletin they plan to run for their board of education position.
Giron declined to comment, saying he was unable to read the entirety of the letter about the board members suspension prior to being locked out of his Los Lunas Schools email. According to the May 26 letter sent by PED, the notification was also sent to his personal email.
Former board member David Vickers declined to comment, and Smith did not respond to the News-Bulletin’s request for comment.
Many of the concerns raised by PED were previously brought to light in the regular audit of the 2020 fiscal year, which included eight significant findings. Like the concerns outlined in the press release, the audit found potential violations of the OMA, state and district procurement code, IPRA and Governmental Conduct Act.
In early March, State Auditor Brian Colon sent a letter to the board of education members and Romero highlighting what he called “significant concerns” about the findings in the audit.
The auditor put the board on a clock, giving them 60 days to respond to his office with an update on the corrective action taken and status of progress toward resolving the issues raised in the audit.
The board approved a response to Colon’s letter with no discussion during the approval of the consent agenda items during the April 27 meeting.
During that meeting, Giron announced all consent agenda items were reviewed by the board members individually “for the benefit of the audience,” the meeting minutes read.
According to the 2020 fiscal year audit report, the board allegedly violated OMA by discussing the services of accounting firm REDW, which conducted a special audit in 2020, during a closed session. The auditors also found the board may have violated the procurement process by paying more than $50,000 in legal services to Himes, Petrarca and Fester and $45,000 to REDW, which exceeds the dollar amount that requires the district to go through a competitive procurement process for those services.
“The special audit and legal fees have also cost the district over $100,000 and time and energy which could be spent elsewhere on district priorities,” reads a portion of the audit report.
Another finding stated was that a newly elected board member used his position to drive a forensic audit against a department in the district in which he was not hired.
Former superintendent Dana Sanders filed complaints with the New Mexico Secretary of State, the New Mexico Attorney General, New Mexico Auditor’s Office and the state’s Ethics Commission, claiming board member Steven Otero used the special forensic audit as retribution against the maintenance department for not hiring him in October 2018, according to prior News-Bulletin reporting.
The concerns raised in the audit report were previously taken to the State Ethics Commission in late May of 2020 by Heather Rindels, the buyer for LLS. While the commission’s jurisdiction doesn’t include complaints filed by local officials or employees, it did issue an advisory opinion in response to a request from a state official or employee, who was not identified as per state statute.
The SEC advisory opinion responded to the exact same complaints Rindels made — allegations the board violated the procurement code, as well as the Government Conduct Act and the Open Meetings Act.
On June 9, 2020, the SEC wrote to Rindels notifying her it referred her complaints to the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which is able to enforce the OMA, GCA and Procurement Code against a Los Lunas school board member.