Acting Questa school board upholds firing of former teacher and coach

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 12/5/19

The acting Questa school board voted Monday (Dec. 2) to uphold the discharge of Paul Passino, 49, a former Questa High School teacher and athletic coach who was terminated in September by former Superintendent Michael Lovato.

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Acting Questa school board upholds firing of former teacher and coach

Posted

The acting Questa school board voted Monday (Dec. 2) to uphold the discharge of Paul Passino, 49, a former Questa High School teacher and athletic coach who was terminated in September by former Superintendent Michael Lovato.

Passino had been placed on administrative leave in January of this year after a female student came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the student's mother, who asked that her name not be used. The student was a juvenile at the time of the alleged incident.

Before testifying at a Nov. 21 meeting at which the acting board heard Passino's appeal, the student's mother said, "The small town cover-up has gone on long enough." She also said that Lovato had phoned her and her husband as well as their attorney in September to say he had terminated Passino after reviewing the case.

Passino's attorney, Autumn Bergh, made the distinction in a Dec. 3 email statement that the acting board had made the decision to discharge - not terminate - Passino, but didn't explain the distinction. Bergh added that, "Mr. Passino has the right to pursue an appeal of that matter to an independent arbitrator and has no comment at this time. Additionally, I would like to be certain that it is clear that the decision was not made by the New Mexico Public Education Department in its capacity as the Department, but was made by the Questa Independent School District Board of Education."

In an earlier email statement following the Nov. 21 appeal hearing in Questa, Bergh denied that Passino had been discharged or terminated. "My client remains on administrative leave, pending a decision by the Questa Independent School District Board of Education following the discharge hearing, not appeal, that was held on Nov. 21."

Thomas L. "Tom" Sullivan, a distinguished New Mexico educator and administrator, presided over the closed-door Nov. 21 hearing in Questa as well as the open Dec. 2 meeting, which was held in Santa Fe. Sullivan was appointed by Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart to act in lieu of the Questa board after Stewart suspended the board's authority Nov. 12 until newly elected board members take office in January.

Sullivan said in a Dec. 3 phone interview with the Taos News that the acting board, which had included a panel of attorneys for this purpose who were well-versed in similar cases, had voted to "uphold the discharge" of Passino.

When asked to confirm that Passino had been discharged for sexual misconduct with a student, Sullivan said, "I wouldn't parse it in exactly those terms." He said that school district personnel matters are held in confidence and that he wasn't at liberty to share details.

Sullivan said that the acting board had explained their reasons for upholding Passino's discharge to Bergh, who represented the former teacher and coach at the meeting. Sullivan said the board would send an explanation of their decision directly to Passino by certified mail. He added that they had notified Samantha Adams, the Questa school district's legal counsel, of their decision and had instructed her to relay it to the student and her parents. "We felt it was necessary to their sense of security to let them know," Sullivan said.

"Of course staff members have additional rights of appeal," he added, "and we'll just have to see where that takes us."

The question remains whether Passino will face criminal prosecution. There has been increasing concern, particularly since the December 2018 conviction of Gary Gregor, that it's relatively easy for a teacher who has been discharged for sexual misconduct in one New Mexico school district to get hired by another district. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Gregor, an elementary school teacher, was dismissed by Santa Fe Public Schools for sexual misconduct and somehow managed to get a job teaching in the Española school district. He was sentenced to 108 years in prison for raping two fourth-grade girls at Fairview Elementary School in Española.

Deputy Secretary of Public Education Gwen Perea Warniment said in an emailed statement, "PED takes immediate action whenever a case like this arises - whether it is reported directly to us or if we hear about it through any other channel. Our first step is to flag the candidate in our licensure database, which is available to all New Mexico school districts and charter schools. Beginning this fall, PED has proactively flagged open investigations within the licensure database, not waiting until a final administrative determination has been made. PED strongly encourages all schools to ensure that any potential hire possesses a current and valid New Mexico teaching license."

Matt Baca, spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General's office, said in an emailed statement, "Teachers and administrators should always report dangerous individuals to law enforcement, and the Office of the Attorney General will immediately investigate any allegations of sexual abuse of students."

Passino, a graduate of Questa High School and New Mexico Highlands University, started his teaching career in 1995 at Questa High School. He formerly held the positions of athletic director, head football coach, track and field coach and, most recently, physical education teacher.

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