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FRI: Albuquerque Settles Whistleblower Suit, Española Superintendent Resigns,+ More

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Carlos Vigil Middle School in Espanola

Albuquerque Settles Ex-Police Official's Whistleblower Suit – Associated Press

Albuquerque has paid a settlement of over $500,000 to a former police commander who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city.

The settlement ended the case  right before a scheduled trial on the suit filed by John Sullivan, who formerly headed Albuquerque's police academy before he was demoted and then retired in 2018, KOAT-TV reported.

Sullivan's lawsuit alleged he was punished because he told the U.S. Department of Justice that he was not getting the resources he needed to make changes at the academy that were mandated by a civil rights settlement agreement.

Sullivan's attorney, Tim White, said the city approached him about settling the case the night before the scheduled start of the trial during which Mayor Tim Keller and current Police Chief Harold Medina were to testify.

Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the city settled the lawsuit "primarily because it focused on employment decisions made by Mike Geier when he was chief at APD."

Española Superintendent Resigns, Investigation Not Released – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

The superintendent of one of New Mexico's larger school districts has resigned after spending months on paid leave during an investigation into his handling of sexual abuse allegations at a previous job.

The Española school board accepted Fred Trujillo's resignation on Tuesday, board members confirmed Thursday.

Trujillo was hired to lead Española in February of 2020, when he was head of the smaller Pecos school district that's also in northern New Mexico.

The board put Trujillo on leave in May 2021 after a lawsuit claimed he failed to respond to sexual misconduct and abuse complaints against his staff in Pecos. Some complaints were later substantiated and led to criminal prosecutions.

"We're moving the district forward and he resigned and that's all I can tell you. The rest is a personnel matter," said board president Gilbert Serrano.

Serrano has previously said that Trujillo was vetted and "his credentials checked out." The board named another superintendent in June.

Former board member and Española doctor Yolanda Salazar said the lawsuit contained no information the board hadn't considered when they hired him. Salazar believes Trujillo followed proper protocols in Pecos, and resigned in June in part over her opposition to opening the investigation.

The district said in a statement that it won't release the new investigation's findings.

"I feel that the Board wants to force me to resign, and I have no other choice," Trujillo wrote in his resignation email.

Trujillo said in the letter he resigned this week because the board had denied requests for bereavement leave.

He did not respond to text and cell phone messages left Thursday afternoon.

Salazar said the bereavement request was due to the death of a close relative of Trujillo's.

She said she had opposed the investigation when she was a board member because she didn't believe it could uncover new information, and she questioned the cost of paying two superintendent's salaries for months. The board had named an interim superintendent in June.

Salazar credited Trujillo for bringing the school through the pandemic and questioned the board's decision keep him on leave.

"If they would have found anything damaging they could have fired him and not paid him," Salazar said.


Native Americans Draft Redistricting Proposals In New Mexico – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Native American communities across New Mexico are putting the finishing touches on proposed redistricting maps aimed at greater self-determination in future public elections, as competing plans wind their way toward the Legislature for consideration.

Participants in a redistricting commission for New Mexico's Indigenous pueblo communities said Friday that map proposals may be finalized as soon as next week.

The maps will be submitted to a seven-member Citizen Redistricting Commission that is reviewing and vetting redistricting maps for the Legislature, which can adopt recommendations or start from scratch. The seven-seat commission has no Native American representation.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to Secretary of the Interior.

Attorney Joseph Little is working with a broad alliance of Native American communities to turn redistricting principles into action using results of the 2020 census to track population changes.

He said the census numbers were only provided recently because of a federal delay that held up their release for months. Major redistricting changes are most likely in the heavily Native American northwest region of the state and an oil-producing region in the southeast.

"It's important that we get these maps in early," Little said. "We didn't have the census numbers until recently."

The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry was 12.4% according to census results announced in August.

Alaska was the most predominantly Native American state, followed by Oklahoma and then New Mexico.

At the same time, Native American politicians have ascended to top legislative leadership posts on committees overseeing taxation, Indian affairs, agriculture and elections, though some frustrations persist about the distribution of state resources to tribal communities.

In April, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed a bill that funnels more federal "impact aid" to schools in Native American communities to offset property tax losses on tax-exempt federal and tribal lands.

State Rep. Georgene Louis of Acoma Pueblo on Friday commended tribal communities for their engagement in the redistricting process.

"In New Mexico, I think we're very fortunate, where the tribes are very active in looking at how we can ensure that we're involved in the process about selecting our own representatives that will then hold the state accountable," she said.

New Mexico Offers Pay Bump To Prekindergarten Teachers – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

State officials responsible for early childhood education in New Mexico say that prekindergarten teachers deserve the same salaries as teachers of older students, and they’re willing to pay for it.

Preschool teachers not licensed for special education earn on average around $35,000 in most areas of New Mexico, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Early Childhood Education and Care Department said Thursday its pay parity program could support around 200 educators. Total salaries could increase to between $41,000 and around $65,500. The pay bump will be based on pay scales for public school staff.

“Despite the fact that many Pre-K teachers and directors hold advanced educational degrees and qualifications comparable to their colleagues in K-12, their pay is typically much lower,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, early childhood education secretary.

The pay parity program is open to an estimated 200 workers who hold a degree in early childhood education, and has already selected at least one qualified advocate, the department said. They said her income increased by $1,300.

Federal and state funding has allowed massive spending by the department, including the broadest family childhood subsidy in the nation. Families at 350% of the federal poverty line — $93,000 for a family of four— are eligible.

Santa Fe Mayor Suffers Setback In Clash With Fraternal Group – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A Santa Fe ethics board has dismissed efforts by Mayor Alan Webber to impose financial disclosure requirements on fraternal organizations that have criticized his handling of clashes over historical monuments and tributes.

Webber is seeking a second term in the November election amid disputes over monuments and tributes to New Mexico’s Spanish colonial history and armed conflicts of the 19th century.

Webber attorney Jeff Herrera argued Thursday that voters have a right to know more about spending by the groups that sponsored a newspaper ad and yard signs that were critical of the mayor, in the runup to the election.

Board members voted 4-0 to dismiss the complaint on several grounds. Board member Paul Biderman said city campaign disclosure requirements don't apply to groups that aren't primarily political organizations, and that allegations of collusion with a rival candidate were misdirected.

The incumbent mayor is vying against fellow Democrat JoAnne Vigil Coppler, a City Council member, and Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020.

Webber’s complaint took aim at the Union Protectiva de Santa Fe, an advocacy group for Spanish colonial heritage and pride, along with local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars — alleging that the groups bankrolled newspaper ads, yard signs and social media spots in coordination with Vigil Coppler.

Virgil Vigil, president of the Union Protectiva, said dismissal of the complaint was a victory for free speech as local Hispanic residents defend historial monuments and traditions.

He said the group's advocacy campaign was launched prior to the election season, without addressing whether it actively supports Vigil Coppler.

“We started this process in June of last year, at that point nobody was running for office,” he said. “It has to do with respecting the city and the culture."

A monument honoring Union soldiers who died fighting Indigenous tribes and Confederate soldiers was toppled by a tumultuous crowd last year.

A counterclaim filed by Union Protectiva accuses the mayor of “bullying” and using city-sponsored recreational events to promote his reelection.

Conflicts over history in Santa Fe have escalated amid a national conversation about public markers paying tribute to historical figures linked to racism, slavery and genocide.

Indigenous leaders and some younger Latino activists say figures from the region’s Spanish colonial era shouldn’t be celebrated because they oversaw the enslavement of Indigenous populations and tried to outlaw their cultural practices.

During Webber’s tenure, Santa Fe discontinued an annual reenactment of the return of Spanish settlers 12 years after the Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680.

$100 Vaccine Incentive Deadline On Friday In New Mexico – Associated Press

The New Mexico Department of Health says people who got a COVID-19 vaccine shot between Aug. 2-31 must sign up by Friday if they want to claim the $100 incentive being offered to entice people to get inoculated.

New Mexico residents who got one of the two-shots of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are eligible. To claim the money you must register at vaccineNM.org before 5 p.m. Friday.

State officials are using American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay for the incentive program announced in June. The August incentives are the second round of the program. The first is credited with leading to a more than 300% increase in vaccinations. About 54% of residents ages 12 and older who are eligible have been vaccinated.

The state reported 578 additional COVID-19 cases and eight new deaths on Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic hit to 239,006 infections and 4,585 deaths.

New Mexico's $37 Million Plan To Recruit More Teachers – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

State education officials are offering to pay for the salaries of 500 teaching assistants and offer them tuition subsidies in a two-year effort to jumpstart recruitment in K-12 schools.

“This program can serve as a pathway for more people to enter the education profession,” Public Education Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus said in an announcement Wednesday.

Educational assistants help out in the classroom but are not full-fledged teachers. They can’t lead instruction or implement curriculum, and they don’t need to have a degree. This year many have served as monitors for teachers presenting remotely.

The $37 million New Mexico Teacher Fellows program is funded by the education department's share of $1 billion in federal money from relief packages passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 90% of those federal funds are being sent directly to school districts. On Thursday, the education department released a database that shows some of the initial spending, mostly on laptops and other emergency tools for remote learning.

At the height of the pandemic, the education department used initial federal funds for emergency school needs like protective gear, temporary WiFi hotspots, and online learning supports like software.

But the largest portion of funding is yet to be spent.

Wednesday’s teacher fellowship announcement signals a new phase in the department’s efforts trying to leverage the temporary windfall of federal money for a longer-term goal: reducing the state’s chronic educator shortage by training candidates in-state.

Around 600 teaching positions were vacant in the state in 2020.

While the pandemic forced fewer retirements than education officials feared, New Mexico is tied for the oldest group of teachers in the nation. Attempts to bring teachers from outside the country have served as an imperfect stopgap, and substitute teachers are in short supply.

The fellowship program aims to keep teaching assistants on the job and advance their careers so that they can fill higher-paying jobs in the future before they leave for another industry with higher pay.

Teacher assistants earn around $25,000 per year, at or below minimum wage in some New Mexico towns. Even for part-time work, the positions are not competitive with entry-level jobs in other industries, like hospitality and construction.

Education department officials hope local districts will take advantage of the state paying for base salaries to increase pay, for example by using a school district’s own federal funds.

The education department plans to start awarding teaching fellowships by the end of the year.

The 500 fellows will have access to mentors outside their school, and a $4,000-per-year education stipend to pursue a degree at a community college or start towards a higher degree.

They don’t even have to study education and could put the stipend toward a degree useful on a school campus. That includes nursing, social work and speech pathology, said Gwen Perea Warniment, ​​deputy secretary of Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

“All of them are important for school, and we’re in dire need of all positions,” Warniment said.