Serving the High Plains

School board mulls changes to comment policy

The superintendent of Tucumcari Public Schools said he would present proposed revisions to the school board’s public comment policy — including possibly allowing constituents submit written comments — by the board’s next meeting in March.

The board during its Feb. 21 meeting discussed options for the policy, but it was not an action item on its agenda. Board member Jerry Lopez had requested a discussion on the policy during the January meeting, saying it was too restrictive, and “we have constituents who want to be heard.”

The board in November 2019 changed its policy for public participation in board meetings. Those who wish to comment before the board must complete a Request to Address Board form and give it to the superintendent before the meeting. The board president may set a time limit of three minutes per speaker or 30 minutes for a presentation.

The policy also states “only items on the current agenda will be permitted to be addressed.” It also states: “Personal attacks upon Board members, staff personnel or other persons in attendance or absent by individuals who address the board are discouraged. Presenters are cautioned that statements or representations concerning others that convey an unjustly unfavorable impression may subject the presented to civil action for defamation.”

Logan Municipal Schools’ public comment policy is largely similar to Tucumcari’s.

Superintendent Aaron McKinney said the board can make changes to the policy if it wished. He cautioned, however, if a teacher was mentioned in public comments who was not present, that educator would lack due process to address the issue.

“Once they speak, you can’t take it back,” he said. “I’ve seen them leave, slam the door and say things they shouldn’t have said.”

McKinney also said since the New Mexico Legislature abolished qualified immunity last year, individual board members could be subject to lawsuits.

McKinney said he instead encourages aggrieved parents to request a private meeting with him or other administrators to work out their problems.

After looking over the current policy, Lopez said not many changes were needed. He indicated he still wanted less-restrictive rules on public comment.

“I know we have to keep control” of meetings, he said. “I feel we’re limiting these people’s ability to speak. … As elected officials, we still need to listen to these people.”

Board member Heather Gonzales noted a parent still can identify and “slam” a teacher on social media.

Assistant superintendent Dave Johnson suggested that constituents be required to sign up for public comments on the Thursday before the board’s regular Monday meeting. He said such a requirement would encourage a meeting with administrators at the unit office.

McKinney suggested having constituents sign up for public comments the Tuesday before the board’s regular meeting, which typically occurs on the third Monday of each month. McKinney suggested the possibility of public comments be put into writing that would be an exhibit to the board.

McKinney said he would consult with the district’s policy adviser on proposed changes to the policy, then present them before the board’s next scheduled meeting on 6 p.m. March 14. The date of the board’s March meeting was moved from March 21 due to a conflict with the district’s spring break.

In other business:

• During comments by board members, Robert Lucero and Gonzales said they and several constituents were upset about the lack of notification for the Feb. 17 lifting of the state’s indoor mask mandate.

“Communication could always be better,” Gonzales said.

The district announced that day on Facebook and on school intercoms that masks were optional.

McKinney said he was reluctant to inform board members by mass text because any sort of mass reply would lead to a rolling quorum and violate the state’s open meetings law. He said next time, he would issue a mass text with a do-not-reply message to avoid the problem.

McKinney said he decided to act quickly that day to make masks optional. He said the high school’s wrestling team was about to compete in the state tournament, and he didn’t want those athletes to have to wear masks and be at a competitive disadvantage.

Johnson said the effectiveness of the district’s mass-texting system remains sporadic, with a number of parents or students who don’t receive texts. McKinney said the district soon would update its website, which would make mass-texting easier.

• McKinney said a land title company recently completed its work on the city and county property required for the $3 million ballpark redevelopment project and that the district should receive its deed paperwork from Albuquerque shortly.

He said once the district receives the deed, construction on the project should begin “right away,” with bids received in as soon as 15 days.

McKinney said he soon would meet with the district’s financial adviser on the possibility of another $3 million bond issue to finish remaining work on the project. Construction costs have risen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• McKinney said installation of climate-control units at Tucumcari Elementary School are delayed from a projected May start to June at the earliest. Supply-chain problems have led to postponement of many such projects. McKinney said the installation also may require the shutdown of one wing at a time.

• Board member Bo Wallace suggested that principals nominate students for the New Mexico School Board Association’s Excellence in Achievement Award.

• In routine matters, the board approved an open-meetings resolution and a resolution that authorizes signatures for board members and employees for the district’s bank accounts.

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