LOS LUNAS — The New Mexico Public Education Department announced Wednesday, May 26, all five members of the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education — Eloy Giron, Frank Otero, Steven Otero, Bryan Smith and David Vickers — have been suspended 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.”
“These aren’t actions that we take lightly because we believe in the ability of local school boards to govern their local districts,” PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said. “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.”
Stewart appointed former board member Sonya C’Moya as his first designee on Friday, May 28, while opening a call for board member applications. C’Moya will represent District 2.
“When I chose not to run for re-election to the school board in 2019, I never intended to turn my back on the Los Lunas School District,” C’Moya said in a May 28 press release. “I’m very interested in restoring the credibility and function of the district, and working again with its wonderful staff and students.”
C’Moya served on the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education from 2015-19, including two years as vice president and one year as secretary.
She also spent four years on the district’s finance committee, including two years as chair, and she is currently a community representative to the board’s audit committee.
Stewart intends to name additional designees, and is requesting letters of interest from those living within the Los Lunas School District by 5 p.m., Tuesday, June 8.
“Our goal is to return the district back to local control as long as we can be very confident that in that doing so, we are going to be setting up the district for success in both academics and operations,” Stewart told the News Bulletin in a telephone interview.
In the May 26 press release, PED listed 16 categorized concerns and potential violations by the suspended 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 at a later date.
During the suspension, Superintendent Arsenio Romero will report directly to Stewart until such time as the secretary could delegate that responsibility. Stewart indicated he will delegate governance to a newly-appointed group of Los Lunas residents, including C’Moya.
“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.”
The seats of Steven Otero and Vickers are up for election in November. Stewart said it is too early to know at this time whether the other board seats, occupied by Giron, Frank Otero and Smith, will also be on the November ballot for the remainder of the terms, which will end in 2023.
However, Stewart encourages anyone interested in being on the school board to put their name in the hat for November’s election. The only day for candidates to file with the Valencia County clerk’s office is Aug. 24.
Suspended board member Steven Otero told the News-Bulletin on May 26 that PED had not contacted the board in relation to the concerns leading to its 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 the November 2020 letter that the board members received training on the laws they allegedly violated.
Frank Otero, who has served on and off on the board since 2007, said he was not one of the board members who caused 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.”
According to PED Deputy Communications Director Judy Robinson, all the suspended board members are entitled to the right to request a hearing, which will be held within 60 calendar days.
According to state statute, a public hearing is usually held prior to suspension unless it “has been notified of disapproval and when (PED) has sufficient reason to believe that the educational process in the school district or public school has been severely impaired or halted as a result of deficiencies so severe as to warrant disapproved status before a public hearing can be held.”
Both Frank Otero and Steve Otero told the News-Bulletin they plan to run again for their board of education positions. According to Stewart, their suspension does not prevent them from running again for the board.
Giron declined to comment, saying he was unable to read the entirety of the letter about the 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.
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.
One finding from the 2020 fiscal year audit 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.
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.
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.
Sanders also filed a lawsuit against the suspended board in late 2020. The complaint, filed Nov. 12, alleges the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education engaged in improper employment practices and retaliation. The lawsuit also names Bryan Smith, Steven Otero and Eloy Giron individually in their official capacities.
The lawsuit accuses the board of retaliating against Sanders for her refusal to use her position to fulfill certain member’s “personal desires and/or vendettas” against district employees.
Sanders alleges she suffered harassment and disparate treatment because she would not go along with “unlawful acts requested and/or perpetrated by … Smith, Otero and Giron.”