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Sex Charges, Intimidation, Golden Parachutes: The Scandalous World of Albuquerque Schools

By Mareesa Nicosia | October 6, 2015

EDlection 2016 is The Seventy Four’s ongoing coverage of state-level education news, debates, headlines and votes in the lead up to 2016 elections. Read our previous dispatches from Ohio, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania. New Mexico’s presidential primary is tentatively scheduled for June 7.
Jacob Gil knows the exact moment he turned from self-described “peon” to outspoken parent advocate appalled by the controversy-riddled Albuquerque Public School district: It was around 2 a.m. one night this past August. He was checking the local news and learned that a newly hired top school official was facing felony child sex assault charges in another state.
Not only that, the official, Jason Martinez, had been on the job for more than a month without completing a required background check that likely would have flagged those disturbing charges pending against him in Colorado. (The district declined to comment on how that transpired.)
Gil and his wife, Heather, were horrified that an alleged child molester had somehow entered the school system where their three daughters and son, ages 7 to 11, are enrolled.
The news galvanized the young couple to action — still in their pajamas, they grabbed their tablet and created an online petition demanding the resignation of then-schools Superintendent Luis Valentino, who had started in May and swiftly recruited Martinez to be his $160,000-a-year deputy superintendent.
The petition garnered more than 3,100 signatures and both officials have since resigned; Valentino may receive a $100,000 settlement, while Martinez returned to Denver, to face his 2013 charges that he molested two relatives who were children. He was arrested, posted bail and now awaits trial in October. (Martinez also faces separate assault charges from a January incident involving his boyfriend and another man.)
“I’m a pissed-off dad who’s saying ‘No more,’” said Gil, a 33-year-old Army veteran and stay-at-home dad who did a stint as a sales rep for ABQ Free Press, an independent newspaper that has been critical of district officials, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and her education secretary, Hanna Skandera.
“It has built up to that point where me and Heather frankly said to ourselves, ‘This is (BS)’,” Gill said. “If we as parents do not force change on behalf of our kids, (we are contributing) to their not being successful. There are thousands of people out there just like me who want to have a voice but they’re scared to.”
The revelation of the child sex assault charges was a tipping point of sorts for parents like him who are now rushing to intervene after months of stewing in the state’s largest district — roughly the 30th largest public school system in the country — about the statewide education policy changes pursued aggressively by Martinez and Skandera.
Compared to the rest of the nation, New Mexico has long been ranked at the bottom for student performance in reading and math. The high-poverty Albuquerque school system serves 87,000 students — a third of all students in the state — most of them minorities and English Language Learners. Graduation rates have declined the last two years, to 62.5 percent, according to state data. On student performance, the district scored a “C” grade in 2013-14.
Meanwhile, as Albuquerque and districts throughout New Mexico have struggled, the state’s charter school sector has grown. About 22,000 students statewide attend 100 charters, according to the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools.
Into this mostly bleak academic and economic backdrop, add a series of back-to-back superintendent resignations — including one who walked away in 2014 with $350,000 after a six-year tenure marred by sex discrimination lawsuits and a secret investigation into a “serious personnel issue” that’s never been publicly addressed by the school board.
(Months prior to his departure, the superintendent, Winston Brooks, had also tweeted bizarre remarks deriding Skandera and likening her to livestock.) The board’s silence prompted the newspaper of record, The Albuquerque Journal, and a local television station to sue the district to release documents related to the investigation. That case is pending.
In the last few weeks alone, a fresh new scandal stemming from district headquarters has become a nearly daily occurrence, including:
  • A misfired text message sent by Valentino to the Chief Financial Officer, Don Moya, sharing the new superintendent’s plan to “go after” Moya for running “roughshot” over the administration. The message was intended for Skandera. Later that day, Moya is put on paid leave; no explanation is provided by the district.
  • A whistleblower lawsuit filed against the board and Skandera by Moya, claiming  Skandera and the superintendent conspired to retaliate against him for his complaints about potential malfeasance related to an alleged kickback scheme. Moya objected to a contract for an IT audit that Valentino was pushing to sign with a vendor who was friends with Jason Martinez, that top school official facing child sex abuse charges. The vendor and Jason Martinez had both worked for Denver Public Schools.
  • A probe by state Attorney General Hector Balderas into how Martinez was hired by Albuquerque schools while facing criminal charges in Colorado, where he was ordered to stay within state boundaries.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division revealed it is considering an investigation into the district’s handling of students with disabilities, responding to a parent’s claim that disabled students are being “funnelled” into the juvenile justice system.
The broader consequence of this dizzying, rapid-fire succession of controversies is that it’s become nearly impossible to separate the scandals that have beset the district from the heroic efforts of Albuquerque educators to turn the city's poorly performing schools around.
Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor who has been mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate, further blurred the lines by donating $15,000 to the election campaign of Peggy Muller-Aragón, a retired teacher running for the school board, in February. Muller-Aragón’s husband, Robert, is an attorney whose friendship with the governor dates back to Martinez’s 2010 campaign. Robert Aragón also sits on the state Board of Finance, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Some see Martinez as wanting to impose change on Albuquerque and other New Mexico schools to burnish her political resume. The governor declined to comment on her campaign donation to Muller-Aragón and the broader criticism of her involvement in the district.
She said she didn’t know Jason Martinez’s name before the scandal broke and was sharply critical of how he ended up in Albuquerque.
"As I have said many times, APS should never have hired Jason Martinez, an accused child molester,” the governor said in a Sept. 24 statement. “We expect leaders to lead. If they can hire their leader, they should take responsibility for firing, not buying him out and providing a letter of recommendation. The taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for a dysfunctional school board, which hired him in the first place."
Education Secretary Skandera, who has also been accused of wielding too much influence on local school districts, said the state is intent on raising the bar.
“New Mexico is committed to high standards and once we’re teaching those high standards now we want to measure (the impact),” she said in an interview with The Seventy Four. “It’s important that our parents, our teachers and our educators across our state know how our students are doing so that we can do something about it.”
With the governor’s support, Muller-Aragón easily won the Albuquerque board election, ousting Kathy Korte, who had criticized what she sees as the “flawed education policies promoted by Gov. Susana Martinez,” according to The Albuquerque Journal.
Muller-Aragón, who is the board’s finance chair, said in an interview that she ran for the seat because she views it as a valuable opportunity to give back and feels strongly about how to improve Albuquerque schools.  She described her role as a “watchdog of taxpayer money” and said she wants to tighten wasteful spending in the district’s $690 million budget.
“How I make my decisions is: I stand up for what I think and ask, ‘Is this in the best interests of the children?’” she said.
She had warm words of support for the governor and Skandera but denied any sense of obligation to act on their interests.  
“I don’t feel beholden to anyone except my own convictions,” she said.
What Skandera and Martinez consider much-needed efforts to raise standards and strengthen teacher accountability, unions and their supporters blast as attempts to force inadequate performance measures on schools.
Lost in the morass seems to be the one thing all sides appear to want: To shift the focus away from hostile conflict and toward improving students’ educational opportunities and achievement.
“What we need here is we need some stability and we need a superintendent, we need a secretary of education, we need educational leadership that is focused on instruction instead of politics,” said Gerry Schneider, an Albuquerque real estate broker and former teacher who recently retired after 34 years in the district. “The instructional side of the schools has been neglected for the last 10 years. We’ve adopted testing and we’ve adopted Common Core standards but we haven’t adopted how to get the kids there and (provided) support for teachers to implement the standards.”
The state’s firm commitment to using the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Readiness of College and Career (PARCC) exam — dropped by most states that initially adopted it — has riled many parents, teachers and union officials in Albuquerque. Under the new teacher evaluation system enacted by Skandera in 2012, student test scores will count for 50 percent of educators’ evaluation.
The state teachers unions, some Democratic lawmakers and educators are currently challenging the evaluation system in court, arguing it’s unfair and will harm teachers.
Students in New Mexico took the exam for the first time last spring and scores, which are expected out in October, will factor heavily into teacher evaluations next year; for 11th- graders, the tests will also be used as a graduation requirement. Complaints about computer glitches and the time spent preparing for and taking the tests flew through the schools. Districtwide, officials saw more than 4 percent of students opt out of the new tests — more than any previous year.
Skandera defended PARCC and refuted complaints that parents and teachers have had little opportunity to give input on the changes of the last few years. She admonished efforts to derail the evaluation system.
“When we have folks who are holding onto a system that has failed our children miserably, I consider that a civil rights issue,” she said. “It is disappointing — that would be a nice word, the nicest word I could use — for what I see as we focus more on adult issues and … put that ahead of our kids’ success.”
Skandera said she’s been in touch with the new interim superintendent, Raquel Reedy, and hopes to develop an improved working relationship with the district.
Reedy has 40 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in the district and was most recently an associate superintendent overseeing 45 elementary schools. In a Sept. 9 letter to the school community, she wrote that one of her top priorities is “to help this community see all of the good that’s happening” in the district and praised the staff’s dedication to serving and caring for students.
A district spokeswoman cast the upheaval of the last few months as a test of resilience for Albuquerque Public School staff.
“Even in the middle of some very challenging times, we never lost focus,” Executive Director of Communications Monica Armenta said. “We will get up again and be stronger after this because we’ve learned … that we exist for one reason — to educate students and give them the best possible outcome they can experience.”
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