‘We’re still united ... and we’ll keep fighting this’

Questa superintendent closes tiny school, citing safety, health hazards

By Doug Cantwell
Posted 8/12/19

Michael Lovato, superintendent of Questa Independent School District, announced his decision at an Aug. 6 board meeting to close Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, at least temporarily, …

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‘We’re still united ... and we’ll keep fighting this’

Questa superintendent closes tiny school, citing safety, health hazards

Posted

Michael Lovato, superintendent of Questa Independent School District, announced his decision at an Aug. 6 board meeting to close Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, at least temporarily, due to health and safety hazards.

The school’s 30-some students will be bused to Alta Vista Elementary in Questa, 20 miles to the south.

Community members responded to the announcement with tears and angry outcries.

Lovato based his call on a July 26 air quality assessment that found several deficiencies in the building, which he reported at a July 29 community forum held in the Río Costilla school library. He noted at the Aug. 6 meeting that the district’s legal counsel had advised, based on the assessment, that the district would now face liability for any safety or health incidents on the premises.

“This has been found on my watch,” said Lovato, dismissing questions from community members who packed the district’s meeting room as to why nothing had been done in the past before he took the job in February of this year. “I need to take responsibility and do justice by the children.”

To drive home his case, Lovato invited David Charlesworth, the Albuquerque industrial hygienist who’d done the assessment, to present his findings to the board and community members via live video feed. Charlesworth did so using compelling language and graphic images to document sewage gas, mold spores, avian excrement and dead animals.

The tiny but high-performing institution has been embattled for several years amid claims that it’s a drain on the district’s already strapped budget. Several Costilla residents have voiced suspicion that this is just the board’s latest strategy to eliminate the school as a cost-cutting measure. Others have pointed up health and safety conditions at the district’s two other schools, asking why no such assessment has been done at those campuses. They cite in particular concerns about Alta Vista, which their kids will start attending next week per Lovato’s plan.

There was a brief period allotted to comments from the community, although most residents had voiced their opinions at the July 29 forum. A fifth-grader who has attended the Rio Costilla Academy since kindergarten, Sean Rowell, delivered a touching statement on why the school means so much to him: Students and teachers are like family, he said, most have been together for years; his teacher inspires him and his classmates to do their best ... and he can see the school from his bedroom window.

“I may only be a fifth-grader,” Rowell said, “but I’m smart enough to know that if you close our school, you will separate our school family and it will be hard on our parents and it will hurt our community.”

Attendees responded with enthusiastic applause. 

Board member Tammy Jaramillo questioned Lovato’s authority to make the decision, insisting that it’s the board’s call. She asked why he had retained consultants and solicited quotes from engineers and restoration experts without advising the board. Lovato has insisted repeatedly that he has sole authority to make any decision involving a health or safety emergency. Board president Daryl Ortega has supported him in this claim and shares the opinion that the building’s current condition does in fact constitute an emergency.

Charlesworth, who does business as DC Environmental, focused mainly on the old 1958 section of the building, which has been closed off and not used for years. He also found a number of deficiencies in the 1958 gymnasium that adjoins the closed-off section but advised that most of these fell outside the scope of his assessment and expertise, such as possible roof leaks, structural integrity of the roof and hardwood floor and condition of the ventilation system.

Board member Jose Lovato asked the consultant pointed questions in a cross-examining style to determine whether he’d found anything in the newer wing, which houses the classrooms and staff offices, that warranted closure.

“No, I did not,” Charlesworth said. He stressed however that mold spores and other contaminants could potentially be circulated into the adjacent gymnasium and newer wing, depending on the type and condition of the school’s ventilation system.

According to Parent-Teacher Association secretary Vivian Vallejos, roughly half of the students’ parents have vowed to register their kids at Taos or Red River schools in the event of the school’s closure. PTA president Billy Vigil Jr. expressed doubt in his statement to the board that the school would ever actually be renovated and reopened if it were closed “temporarily.”

Sean’s mother, Nina Rowell, who has volunteered frequently at the school to help out with coaching athletics, said after the meeting that she and other parents will take the kids out for lunch to try and boost morale. She added that the school’s traditional back-to-school picnic would go on as scheduled.

“We’re still united,” Rowell said. “We’re still Río Costilla ... and we’ll keep fighting this.”

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