Logan, other districts file suit against education secretary
October 21, 2020
Logan Municipal Schools and at least seven other school districts filed a lawsuit against Education Secretary Ryan Stewart and the New Mexico Public Education Department, alleging they overstepped their authority in imposing COVID-19 restrictions on schools.
Logan was joined in the lawsuit, filed Oct. 6 in Santa Fe County District Court, by the Gallup, Mora, Capitan, Mountainair, Animas, Elida and Zuni school districts.
The lawsuit suggests the PED “overreached in its authority and subverted local control, including depriving some students within the jurisdiction of the School Districts of their constitutional right to a public education” and “running roughshod over the authorities of local school boards.”
The lawsuit notes public health orders issued by the governor or health secretary have not declared public schools as unsafe if safeguards were instituted to protect employees and students. It noted the closing of schools in mid-March during the previous school year was only a “proactive measure” and that school buildings would remain open, including its cafeterias and health centers.
The complaint states Stewart and PED issued “guidance” documents to school districts during the pandemic.
“However, the PED has enforced or has threatened the enforcement of its ‘guidance’ documents as if each have the force and effect of laws or as being Department regulations,” the suit states.
The lawsuit maintains the PED failed to comply with requirements of the State Rules Act with those documents.
The complaint also states the agency issued unfunded mandates about the preparation and delivery of school-prepared meals and requiring often-incompatible air filters for schools’ climate-control systems.
It states PED’s school re-entry guidance wasn’t considered mandatory, but the agency “has continued to threaten enforcement.” It states the agency also directed changes to local districts’ personnel and random COVID-19 testing of employees that are illegal or inconsistent with federal and state law.
The lawsuit states Stewart and the PED infringed on the right to a public education if students don’t have access to the internet or sufficient technology for mandated online learning during the pandemic.
It notes public schools are exempt from the public health order’s mass-gatherings ban, thus preventing the Stewart and the PED from banning in-person instruction at schools.
The complaint alleges the PED lacks the authority to reduce the distribution of federal CARES Act funds to school districts due to the state’s budget woes.
“The funding each school district received from the CARES Act may not be used by the PED to replace any reduction or deficit made in State funding and constitutes a unlawful taking from each local school district without statutory authority, outside of formal rule-making and in violation of due process,” it stated.
The lawsuit asks for declaratory and injunctive relief from Stewart and the PED, plus legal costs and attorney fees.
Logan’s school board last month during a special meeting voted to join the lawsuit, initially filed by the Gallup-McKinley County Schools. The agreement to join the suit contained several contingencies, including a penalty-free opt-out clause and a maximum cost of no more than $1,000 to the district.
The Logan motion to join the suit included “an assurance that Logan Municipal Schools not be portrayed as critical of the content of the rules as much as the process by which they were improperly promulgated.”
The lawsuit was filed by Andrew Sanchez of the Himes, Petrarca & Fester law firm of Albuquerque.