Animosity that has smoldered for months in the Peñasco school district erupted last week following an incident that involved superintendent Lisa Hamilton's 13-year-old son.
Hamilton's son entered the elementary school using a key given to him by his mom, who had a couple of hours of work to do next door at the administrative office. He played basketball in the gym for a while, then got some snacks from the cafeteria, went to one of the classrooms to watch television - and left a mess behind him, although he didn't damage any school property, according to Hamilton.
New Mexico State Police investigated after being notified by an unidentified school staff member. At a special meeting called by the board Feb. 12 in response to the incident, they determined that Hamilton had been irresponsible in providing her son a master key to the school and placed her on administrative leave pending further investigation.
Anonymous emailer involved
Taos News was alerted to this development by an anonymous emailer who uses the address firstname.lastname@example.org. The emailer, who refused to identify her/himself, sent several subsequent messages, one of which identified the State Police officer who investigated the incident and provided his contact information.
According to Lt. Mark Soriano, public information officer, the New Mexico State Police responded on Feb. 12 to a call regarding an incident that occurred Feb. 7. The investigation is still ongoing, and no one has been charged. Soriano declined to confirm the names of individuals involved in the investigation.
Hamilton said in a Feb. 17 phone interview with the Taos News that a number of staff have never accepted her or given her a chance as superintendent. She didn't know who it was that notified police of her son's misbehavior but said it was unnecessary and likely done for personal reasons.
Longtime Peñasco resident and retired educator Joel Sherman said in a Feb. 17 phone interview that the situation developed largely because a handful of teachers are resistant to change. "Some of them come from families who have been teaching in our schools for generations," he said, "and seem to feel they have a degree of ownership over district policy."
Sherman also sees fear of outsiders in play. Hamilton, a non-Hispanic and East Coast native, taught in New York City schools, then worked at the Public Education Department in Santa Fe as data bureau chief before accepting the Peñasco position last June.
"She recognizes that things have to change in this district," Sherman added. "She's trying to get a more hands-on education for these kids."
Sherman also said that former school board member Leroy Lopez, who left office Dec. 31 after losing his bid for reelection, had orchestrated a movement among teachers and parents to submit letters of complaint about Hamilton to the board.
Lopez flatly denied that he'd done anything to stir up opposition to the current superintendent. "I have not said a word," he added. "I'm out of the race. It's them [the current board] who have the responsibility now."
Restoring proper channels
In an interview before the Tuesday (Feb. 18) board meeting, Peñasco board president Amanda Bissell expressed concern over how the current turmoil has developed.
"We've gotten letters of concern [about the superintendent]," she said, "but we're also getting letters of support. I think when folks are wanting to be loud, they're really loud, and that's what's getting a lot of the attention."
She added that the board has been put in a hard situation, and she's trying to understand where it all started.
Bissell said the board had spent a lot of time trying to explain to the community that the grievance procedure may be burdensome, but it gives everybody due process. "That's why we have a policy that mirrors what 95 percent of school districts in the state have."
In the current situation, she said, "We as board members are being pushed into the position of making administrative decisions, and that's not our role."
Unfortunate lack of judgment
What about the superintendent's decision to give her son a key to the school buildings?
"It was an unfortunate lack of judgment," Bissell said, "and terrible timing. Teachers do bring their kiddos to school sometimes if they're working late and let them play on the basketball court or keep them there in the classroom with them.
"But not everybody's kid has access to a master key," she added. "That's a big difference. I know she trusted her son, and that didn't work out. I'm not judging her as a parent. As a busy mother, I get it."
The board was slated to sort through the letters during executive session and figure out a course of action. "I hope we can remedy this situation of the staff feeling like they need direct access to the board and shut that down. It's not our process, it's not fair to our superintendent and it's not fair to staff. It's not going to resolve their issues."
Heartfelt comments pro and con
Hamilton attended the Feb. 18 board meeting after being taken off administrative leave by the board that morning. The anonymous emailer had misinformed the community that the board would vote on her contract renewal at this week's meeting, which packed the room with district staff and community members, many of whom spoke during the public comment period.
Hamilton listened stoically as several voiced concerns about her during the public comment period, although the majority of them spoke in support.
"Change is hard," said Elizabeth Vigil, who has two children in the district. "The grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it. There's always chaos before the fix is there, and I support our superintendent because I feel positive change has happened. Staff have changed toward our kids and toward my daughter. She's been happier, more respected and been talked to like a person. Ms. Hamilton has made a positive change in our staff, in our schools, the grounds, the money, the programs that she's made."
Community member José Luis Ortiz told a different story. He mentioned his ancestral connections to several Spanish land grants and said, "I want to encourage the board to identify someone [for superintendent] within our community, somebody that knows our culture, who's from here and is competent in our experience and our long-term history to lead us into the future. I think that's vital to our progress and to our success as a community."
Elementary school teacher Maxine Abeyta thanked Hamilton for always putting the kids first. "Being first-year superintendent, a lot of the issues that were just spoken about now, she had nothing to do with those," she said. "Student loss, teacher loss, that's been happening for years."
High school senior Cynthia Montoya spoke emotionally in support of Hamilton. "She is doing a great job. It is kind of sickening to me that the staff seem to care about only themselves and not the students."
Hamilton's contract is up for renewal next month and will be addressed at the March 17 board meeting.
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