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WED: Ronchetti releases education plan citing low academic performance among NM students, + More


Ronchetti releases education plan citing low academic performance among NM students - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Republican candidate for governor Mark Ronchetti announced an eight-point education plan Wednesday that he says will boost classroom funding and help students catch up after learning loss during the pandemic.

In a press release, Ronchetti pinned New Mexico’s poor test scores on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — who he says kept schools closed longer than necessary — and the state Public Education Department. A statewide assessment released by the department last week showed most New Mexico students are not proficient in math, science or language arts.

He proposes spending $100 million on stipends for first through third graders from families with low incomes. His plan says the families of nearly 60,000 students would receive $1,500 annually for three years to purchase out-of-school tutoring.

Ronchetti’s education plan cited a Think New Mexico analysis that showed around 70% of districts grew the budgets of their administrations faster than that of their classrooms. He says he’d change state law to limit that growth, directing more education dollars into classrooms and increasing transparency of how that money is spent.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, at a press conference following Ronchetti’s announcement, said administrative spending isn’t a problem. She called the candidate “a danger to public education as we know it,” noting that the governor’s policies — including upping teacher salaries and instructional time — are working, but the data on their impact takes time.

New omicron-specific vaccines and boosters due out this week in NM and available to everyone over 12 - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

New Mexico public health officials are expecting the new omicron COVID-19 boosters to arrive at health care providers across the state this week.

The bivalent boosters, approved by the FDA on Aug. 31, are meant to provide protection from severe disease and death resulting from an infection with the strains of coronavirus known as omicron-BA.4 and omicron-BA.5.

The new vaccines are free, for now, though that is likely to change in the fall or winter when the federal government will stop buying them and people will have to pay for them out-of-pocket, according to the White House.

To be eligible for the new vaccines, you must be at least two months out from your most recent vaccination, the New Mexico Department of Health said in a Sept. 2 news release. You must also be recovered from your most recent COVID infection, according to the CDC.

There are two bivalent boosters currently available, one made by Pfizer and the other by Moderna. For people aged 18 and older, they recommend the booster made by Moderna.

For people aged 12 to 18, DOH and the CDC recommend the Pfizer booster.

There is no omicron-specific vaccine available for people younger than 12, which advocates see as yet another failure on the part of the U.S. government to include vulnerable populations in the pandemic response.

The federal Food and Drug Administration “will work quickly to evaluate future data and submissions to support authorization of bivalent COVID-19 boosters for additional age groups as we receive them,” the agency said on Aug. 31.

For people who have already completed their primary series, and for those who have had one or two boosters already, DOH is recommending the new vaccines be administered as a single booster dose.

If you are seeking the new omicron vaccine but have not had any other booster yet, you can use this new one as your booster shot.

New Mexico had 54,400 doses of bivalent boosters as of Sept. 2, and DOH will order more “as needed,” the agency said.

According to DOH, less than 75% of adults in New Mexico and about half of eligible young people in New Mexico have gotten boosted.

That means to get the new vaccine to every eligible New Mexican, the state would need 343,216 boosters, or six times more doses than what’s on-hand today.

Ex-bookkeeper at Albuquerque firm pleads guilty to $2M fraud - Associated Press

A former bookkeeper for an Albuquerque-based auto body firm has pleaded guilty to charges that she defrauded her employer out of $2 million over a seven-year period, authorities said.

According to the plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court of New Mexico, 47-year-old Christina Joyner of Rio Rancho admitted Tuesday that she stole the money from her former employer from July 2014 through September 2021.

Federal prosecutors said Joyner faces up to 20 years in prison when she's sentenced at a later date.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Joyner worked as a bookkeeper for the auto body firm for 25 years and held information about the firm's bank accounts, credit cards, on-site cash and accounting software.

She was accused of issuing checks to herself and coded them to give the appearance they were for legitimate business expenses.

The newspaper said Joyner also allegedly created fraudulent payroll check stubs for her husband's name and used them as proof of income when applying for loans.

New Mexico banishes Trump ally from office for insurrection - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A New Mexico state district court judge on Tuesday disqualified county commissioner and Cowboys for Trump cofounder Couy Griffin from holding public office for engaging in insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The judgment from state District Court Judge Francis Mathew permanently bars Griffin from federal and local public office. It arrived amid a spate of lawsuits aimed at sidelining political candidates and elected officials linked to the Capitol riots.

Griffin was previously convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for entering Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, without going inside the building. He was sentenced to 14 days and given credit for time served.

The new ruling immediately removes Griffin from his position as a commissioner in Otero County in southern New Mexico. He also is barred from serving as a presidential elector.

"Mr. Griffin aided the insurrection even though he did not personally engage in violence," Mathew wrote. "By joining the mob and trespassing on restricted Capitol grounds, Mr. Griffin contributed to delaying Congress's election-certification proceedings."

Griffin said he was notified of his removal from office by Otero County staff, who prevented him from accessing his work computer and office space at a county building in Alamogordo.

Griffin, who served as his own legal counsel at a two-day bench trial in August, called the ruling a "total disgrace" that disenfranchises his constituents in Otero County.

"The actions that are being taken are, I believe, perfect evidence of the tyranny that we're right now living under," Griffin said. "The left continues to speak about democracy being under attack, but is this democracy? Whenever you're removed from office by the civil courts by the opinion of a liberal judge."

A flurry of similar lawsuits around the country are seeking to punish politicians who took part in Jan. 6 under provisions of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which holds that anyone who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution can be barred from office for engaging in insurrection or rebellion.

The provisions were put in place shortly after the Civil War.

"It was written to deal with former Confederates ... and it's basically been dormant ever since with one or two odd exceptions," said Gerard Magliocca, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. "There was nothing else that could be described as an insurrection against the Constitution until Jan. 6."

At trial, Griffin invoked free speech guarantees in his defense and argued that removing him from office would cut against the will of the people and set a "dangerous precedent." Elected in 2018, Griffin withstood a recall vote last year but isn't running for reelection or other office in November.

Mathew wrote that Griffin's arguments "disregard that the Constitution itself reflects the will of the people."

Griffin "overlooks that his own insurrectionary conduct on January 6 sought to subvert the results of a free and fair election, which would have disenfranchised millions of voters."

The lawsuit against Griffin was brought by three plaintiffs in New Mexico with assistance from the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Supportive briefs were filed by the NAACP and progressive watchdog group Common Cause. A federal court declined a recent request to take up the case.

Tuesday's judgment is "a historic win for accountability for the January 6th insurrection and the efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the United States," Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics President Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.

Griffin, a Republican, forged a group of rodeo acquaintances in 2019 into the promotional group called Cowboys for Trump that staged horseback parades to spread President Donald Trump's conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.

This year, Griffin voted twice as a county commissioner against certifying New Mexico's June 7 primary election, in a standoff over election integrity fueled by conspiracy theories about the security of voting equipment in the Republican-dominated county.

Two other commissioners eventually agreed to certify, but Griffin cast the lone dissenting vote while acknowledging that he had no specific basis for questioning the results of the election — attributing his decision to "my gut feeling and my own intuition."

Griffin is among a dozen people charged in the Jan. 6 riot that had either held public office or ran for a government leadership post in the two and a half years before the attack. Of those, seven have been convicted of crimes for their participation.

Unlike Griffin, the members of Congress targeted for disqualification were neither charged nor convicted of crimes associated with the Capitol riot.

In Georgia, a federal judge allowed a 14th Amendment challenge against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green to advance, but a state administrative law judge found there wasn't sufficient evidence to back voters' claims that she had engaged in insurrection, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Greene was qualified to run.

Greene won her primary, and the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the decision last week to leave her on the ballot. The federal appeal is pending.

In North Carolina, a federal judge blocked the state elections board from formally examining whether U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who spoke at the rally that preceded the riot, should remain on the state's May 17 primary ballot.

Cawthorn narrowly lost that election, and later in May a federal appeals court reversed the lower court decision. The panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge got it wrong when he ruled that an 1872 law that removed office-holding disqualifications from most ex-Confederates also exempted current members of Congress like Cawthorn. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed as moot because Cawthorn isn't on the November ballot.

Arizona state courts have kept U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs and a state legislator on the ballot amid efforts to disqualify them. A judge agreed in April with the lawmakers that Congress created no enforcement mechanism for the 14th Amendment, barring a criminal conviction.

FEMA assistance application deadline extended for another month – By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Victims with damaged property or homes caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and flooding-related disasters now have until Oct. 7 to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

FEMA extended the deadline for another month, spokesperson Angela Byrd said Tuesday. It was previously set to end on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

In addition to damage caused by the fire, property harm from flooding, mudflows and debris flows are applicable. The help is aimed at those who are underinsured or without insurance.

FEMA has so far approved 1,240 applicants and allocated more than $4.7 million in funding as of Aug. 31, Byrd said. She declined to say how many applicants have been denied. FEMA won’t offer aid if insurance already covers the damage. “We don’t duplicate efforts,” she said.

But there are other reasons applications are denied, including missing documentation. People can appeal those and other denials.

Applicants have 60 days to appeal a decision after the date of the determination letter, even after the deadline passes. This can be in the case of a denial or if the applicant doesn’t believe they’re getting enough assistance. Financial aid is capped at just under $40,000.

FEMA representatives are reaching out to people daily to help them in the appeal process, Byrd said. The agency has been criticized for automated denial letters sent to applicants or rejections based on incorrect information gathered by FEMA.

“If we are reaching out, if you can, please respond, and that will help,” she said. “That would absolutely help.”

Las Vegas Jewish community looks to buy first NM synagogue back from Archdiocese - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

As the Archdiocese of Santa Fe liquidates its assets to pay for a settlement agreement with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the Jewish community in Las Vegas have an opportunity to buy back a historic house of worship.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Temple Montefiore dates back to 1886, and was the first synagogue in the New Mexico territory.

The Catholic Church purchased the property in 1950 and it now serves as the Newman Center ministry on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University.

The opportunity for the Jewish community to once again own the historic temple is not a sure thing. Community member Nancy Terr told the New Mexican that the Archdiocese shortened the timeline of the purchase from 60 to 30 days.

The Las Vegas Jewish Community has a $200,000 dollar fundraising goal on GoFundMe. The New Mexican reported Sunday that – combined with check contributions – the campaign had about half of that left to raise, but the online campaign has since raised nearly $53,000 dollars more as of Tuesday afternoon.

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo, who supports the change of hands, said it was unclear if the city could help fund it, but promised city support in facilitating the purchase.

Attorney General looks into gas prices in northwest NM - KOB-TV, KUNM News

While gas prices are starting to drop after hitting a record-high of over $5 dollars-a-gallon nationally in June, drivers in northwest New Mexico aren’t seeing the same relief as the rest of the state.

KOB-TV reports the average cost of fuel in New Mexico is now $3.63 per gallon, with the price at the pump even a bit lower in the Albuquerque area. But in Farmington, drivers are still paying $4.07 for each gallon of gas.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says Farmington Mayor Nathan Duckett reached out about the disparity last month. The AG says his office has now begun a consumer protection investigation into the matter.

Balderas says his office will be looking for justification for the prices area retailers have set for the product, as well as any potential manipulations of the market.

He told KOB that the public can anticipate an update on the investigation’s next steps sometime in the next few days.

Climate damage from oil leases on US land gets second look - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

The Biden administration reached a legal settlement Tuesday that requires the government to reexamine potential climate damages from oil and gas leases put up for sale under the Trump administration on government land in Montana and North Dakota.

Similar deals have been reached in recent weeks for lease sales covering thousands of square miles public lands under the Trump and Obama administrations in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Tuesday's settlement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups involves parcels totaling 91 square miles (235 square kilometers) and was detailed in documents filed in U.S. District Court in Montana.

About a quarter of U.S. fossil fuels comes from federal lands and waters, making them important for industry and also a prime target for climate activists who want to shut down leasing.

The state of Wyoming and American Petroleum Institute opposed attempts to revisit previously sold leases. They argued that leasing decisions were final after 90 days and any changes now could financially harm companies.

WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and other groups had sued over the sales. They're hopeful President Joe Biden's administration will curb drilling on the leased parcels after climate damages and other future potential pollution are considered.

"Our hope is that they're not just rubber stamping drilling permits, that they recognize they are legally vulnerable," said Jeremy Nichols with Wild Earth Guardians.

The agreements don't include deadlines for new environmental reviews, and they don't cancel any leases or prevent development. Any attempt to do so would meet fierce opposition from energy companies and their allies in Congress.

"It doesn't matter what administration is in office the goal of these groups is to keep energy resources in the ground," said Aaron Johnson with the industry group Western Energy Alliance. "Settlements like this mean it's even harder to operate on public lands because of the political, regulatory, and legal hurdles that exist."

Biden campaigned on pledges to end new drilling on public lands and suspended new oil and gas lease sales when he took office last year. The move drew multiple lawsuits from Republican-led states and the oil and gas industry.

Those cases have resulted in conflicting court rulings on whether the suspension was legal.

The latest ruling came Friday, when U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl sided with Biden in lawsuits brought by the state of Wyoming and industry.

Skavdahl said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was justified in postponing onshore oil and gas sales last March because of concerns about climate impacts and other environmental problems.

However, at least some of the parcels of land at issue were sold while the case was pending. That came after a federal judge in Louisiana in a separate case said the leasing suspension was invalid and ordered sales to resume.

Ruidoso police: human skull found at a construction site - Associated Press

A human skull has been found at a construction site in Ruidoso, according to police.

Albuquerque TV station KOB reported that construction crews discovered the skull on Monday while completing excavation work.

Police and the Office of the Medical Investigator will continue investigating the discovery of the skull.

Pilot dies in crash of a paraglider west of Albuquerque - Associated Press

A man has died after the crash of a paraglider west of Albuquerque, New Mexico State Police said Tuesday.

Police were called Saturday about a downed aircraft in an open field north of the Route 66 Casino on Interstate 40.

They said 67-year-old Carl Apodaca of Albuquerque was piloting his paraglider when it crashed for unknown reasons.

Police said Apodaca was pronounced deceased at the scene from his injuries.

Huge Los Angeles Unified School district hit by cyberattack - By Stefanie Dazio, Frank Bajak And Zeke Miller Associated Press

A ransomware attack targeting the huge Los Angeles school district prompted an unprecedented shutdown of its computer systems as schools increasingly find themselves vulnerable to cyber breaches at the start of a new year.

The attack on the Los Angeles Unified School District sounded alarms across the country, from urgent talks with the White House and the National Security Council after the first signs of ransomware were discovered late Saturday night to mandated password changes for 540,000 students and 70,000 district employees.

Though the attack used technology that encrypts data and won't unlock it unless a ransom is paid, in this case the district's superintendent said no immediate demand for money was made and schools in the nation's second-largest district opened as scheduled on Tuesday.

Such attacks have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year as pandemic-forced reliance on technology increases the impact. And ransomware gangs have in the past planned major attacks on U.S. holiday weekends, when they know IT staffing will be thin and security experts relaxing.

While it was not immediately clear when the LA attack began — officials have only said when it was detected and a district spokesperson declined to answer additional questions — Saturday night's discovery reached the highest levels of the federal government's cybersecurity agencies.

According to a senior administration official, this pattern of support was consistent with the Biden administration's efforts to provide maximum assistance to critical industries affected by such breaches.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the federal response, said the school district did not pay ransom, but would not get into detail on what potentially might have been stolen or damaged and what systems were affected by the breach.

The White House's response to the LA incursion reflects a growing national security concern: A Pew Research Center survey, published last month, found that 71% of Americans say cyberattacks from other countries are a major threat to the U.S.

Authorities believe the LA attack originated internationally and have identified three potential countries where it may have come from, though LA Superintendent Alberto Carvalho would not say which countries may be involved. Most ransomware criminals are Russian speakers who operate without interference from the Kremlin.

LA officials did not identify the ransomware used.

"This was an act of cowardice," said Nick Melvoin, the school board vice president. "A criminal act against kids, against their teachers and against an education system."

So far this year, 26 U.S. school districts — including Los Angeles — and 24 colleges and universities have been hit by so-called ransomware, according to Brett Callow, a ransomware analyst at the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft.

With victims increasingly refusing to pay to have their data unlocked, many cybercriminals instead use the same technology to steal sensitive information and demand extortion payments. If the victim doesn't pay, the data gets dumped online.

Callow said at least 31 of the schools hit this year had data stolen and released online, and noted that eight of the school districts have been hit since Aug. 1. The upsurge on schools as summer vacations end is almost certainly not coincidental, he said.

"It is the No. 1 threat to our safety," said Michel Moore, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. "It is an invisible foe and it is tireless."

Tireless — and expensive, even outside of any monetary demands. A ransomware extortion attack in Albuquerque's biggest school district forced schools to close for two days in January, while Baltimore City's response to a 2019 hit on its computer servers cost upwards of $18 million.

The LA attack was discovered around 10:30 p.m. Saturday when staff first detected "unusual activity," Carvalho said. The perpetrators appear to have targeted the facilities systems, which involves information about private-sector contractor payments — which are publicly available through records requests — rather than confidential details like payroll, health and other data.

He said district IT officials detected the malware and stopped it from propagating but not until after it infected key network systems, necessitating the reset of passwords for all staff and students.

Authorities scrambled to trace the intruders and restrict potential damage.

"We basically shut down every one of our systems," Carvalho said, noting that each one had been checked and all but one — the facilities system — restarted by late Monday night, when the district first notified the public of the hit.

On Tuesday, federal authorities separately warned of potential ransomware attacks by the criminal syndicate known as Vice Society, which has allegedly disproportionately targeted the education sector.

Authorities have not said whether they believe Vice Society is involved in the LA attack and the group did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

"The fact that a joint cybersecurity advisory relating to Vice Society was issued within days of the attack on LAUSD being discovered may be telling, especially as this gang has frequently targeted the education sector in both the U.S. and the U.K.," said Callow, the ransomware expert.

Vice Society first appeared in May 2021 and, rather than a unique variant, it has used ransomware widely available in the Russian-speaking underground, security researchers say. Among victims claimed by Vice Society are the Elmbrook School district in Wisconsin and the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Ransomware gangs routinely dissolve after high-profile attacks such as last year's Colonial Pipeline incident, which triggered runs on gas stations. Their members then reconstitute under new names.

While there was pressure to cancel school in Los Angeles on Tuesday, officials ultimately decided to stay open.

Had the activity not been discovered on Saturday night, Carvalho said there could have been "catastrophic" consequences.

"If we had lost the ability to run our school buses, over 40,000 of our students would not have been able to get to school, or it would have been a highly disrupted system," he said.

The district plans to do a forensic audit of the attack to see what can be done to prevent future incursions.

"Every teacher, every employee, every student can be a weak point," said Soheil Katal, the district's chief information officer.