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FRI: Bernallillo commissioners broke transparency law, New Mexico leads in chronic absenteeism, + More

Bernalillo County Commission meeting
Roberto Rosales
/
City Desk ABQ
Bernalillo County Commission meeting

New Mexico a leader in chronic absenteeism in public schools according to state reports - Leah Romero, Source New Mexico 

Public school students in New Mexico experienced the highest increase in chronic absenteeism between 2019 and 2023 in the country, according to a recent Legislative Finance Committee report.

State lawmakers were clued in on student attendance this week by LFC analysts and New Mexico Public Education Department representatives. The major takeaway: New Mexico saw a 119% increase in chronic absenteeism between 2019 and 2023 – the largest increase in the country, according to the report. The national average increased by 71% during the same period.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of the school days in a year, or at least 18 days in a 180-day school calendar year.

Several studies have linked missing this amount of school or more in younger grade levels to lower rates in reading and math proficiency and ultimately lower high school graduation rates. Absences negatively impact the other students in class as well, the LFC report notes.

The federal KIDS COUNT Data Book released earlier this week highlighted New Mexico’s performance in education as a factor in overall child well being. The state ranked 50th in this area with 79% of students not proficient in fourth grade reading and 87% of students not proficient in eighth grade math.

Analysts found children in an ethnic minority, English language learners, those who have disabilities and those experiencing housing insecurity are absent from school at a higher rate than fellow students.

“Students in the later elementary school grades tend to have the best attendance in New Mexico, while kindergarten and high school students were the most absent,” the report reads.

Analysts said the causes of this trend are unclear, but did note New Mexico students are similar to the national trend in this area.

TAKING ATTENDANCE IS INCONSISTENT THROUGHOUT THE STATE

Another factor in low attendance numbers is inconsistent ways teachers track attendance. Analysts found teachers across New Mexico school districts vary in the ways they take attendance, from tracking it through software programs to notating it by hand. And attendance is not taken regularly each day or even each class period.

“The problem is compounded by some student information systems defaulting all student attendance to ‘present,’ leading to an undercount of absences by teachers who fail to take attendance,” the report states.

The Attendance for Success Act was passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 2019 and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The bill outlined intervention strategies for addressing chronic absences in a supportive way rather than through punishment and directed the PED to collect data on attendance and ensure it is being reported “consistently and correctly.”

LFC analysts reported to lawmakers the PED has still not provided school districts with guidance on implementing the changed rules from the bill.

The report noted that PED can, in theory, provide districts with funding, technical assistance and training, but has not been consistent in this support “due to staff turnover, lack of strategic planning, and lack of clearly defined departmental roles in addressing absenteeism.”

Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants) questioned the actions of PED and its staff’s failures to correctly do their jobs.

“We need to not point fingers at the schools. We need to point fingers at ourselves as to why this is happening,” Garcia said. “It clearly states here that you guys are not providing sufficient information to the schools.”

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS TO CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM

Analysts wrote a simple solution would be for the PED to clarify how teachers should take attendance and set up a statewide student information system to regulate the collection of data, as directed by the Attendance for Success Act.

One suggestion was to make changes to the academic calendar on a school-to-school basis to address the needs of chronically absent students. Providing extra schooling to these students would allow them to gain back instructional time. Analysts looked at a study done in North Carolina which showed improvements in academic performance when students spent more time in instruction.

Another suggestion in the report was to extend the school day or even the school year.

New Mexico lawmakers passed the K-12 Plus Program law in 2023, incentivizing school districts to extend the school year and changed the academic calendar to be based on instructional hours rather than days.

However, the New Mexico School Superintendents Association and officials from various districts and schools throughout the state filed a civil case asking the court for an injunction earlier this year to legally halt the bill from being enacted. The case is still being considered in court.

Bernalillo County Commission broke transparency lawRodd Cayton, CityDesk ABQ

State investigators determined that Bernalillo County commissioners violated the open meetings law when they established a process for choosing a new county manager.

CityDesk ABQ’s Rod Clayton reports officials received a letter Thursday from the New Mexico Department of Justice about the finding. It stated commissioners violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by engaging in deliberations that were not public.

The so-called rolling quorum means three members of the five-member body communicated by email, phone or other means to discuss public business, without giving the public notice of their plans to do so.

Complaints to the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government stated that Chairman Barbara Baca and Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Eric Olivas came to a public meeting with a plan for recruiting a new county chief already outlined and with a list of search committee members.

The Foundation for Open Government applauded the decision by the NMDOJ, which outlined corrective actions the commission should take. Baca said in a release the commission will meet on June 18 to summarize the discussions and actions made outside of a public meeting and ratify those previous actions with a public vote.

Bernalillo County Commission broke transparency lawRodd Cayton, CityDesk ABQ

State investigators determined Bernalillo County commissioners violated the open meetings law when they established a process for choosing a new county manager. This means the commission will have to meet again to re-do their deliberations in public.

The New Mexico Department of Justice notified county officials in a letter Thursday that it found the commission violated New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act “by engaging in non-public deliberations” as it worked on the recruitment process.

Specifically, the department found, commissioners established a so-called “rolling quorum” — meaning that at least three members communicated by email, phone or other means to discuss public business, without giving the public notice of their plans to do so. A quorum is the assembly of a majority of members of a government body. In this case, that means three of the five commissioners.

In this case, the allegation was that commissioners Barbara Baca, Eric Olivas and Adriann Barboa determined who would be on a search committee for the next county manager before the resolution was considered at the public meeting.

Under state law, any time a quorum of a public body is to meet, the public must receive notice of the meeting in advance.

“These actions … deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to participate in or even witness the deliberations on a question of profound public importance,” said Billy Jimenez, director of the department’s government litigation division.

Jimenez said the commission must take immediate corrective action to avoid a legal challenge over the matter.

The letter outlines two corrective actions available to the commission:

  • Conducting a properly noticed public meeting, at which commissioners would summarize the discussions and comments made outside of a public meeting, then ratify their previous actions with a public and open vote.
  • Treating the previous action as invalid and restarting the process through a properly noticed public meeting. This would require re-doing the consideration and adoption by a majority of the commission of a new resolution in a properly noticed open meeting, with all discussions, deliberations and votes on the new resolution occurring in the open.

Response to finding

Accusations of the violation emerged after Commission Chair Baca issued a press release detailing the plan that would be voted on, including the names of search committee members, which had been formed before the April 9 meeting at which it was adopted.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government filed the complaint with the state DOJ, “after receiving calls about the violation on our hotline,” said Melanie Majors, the organization’s executive director.

Majors said in a press release on Friday that she applauds the decision.

“This DOJ’s opinion points out not only did members of the commission break the law, but their actions violated the goodwill of the citizens of the county,” Majors wrote. “Sunshine laws exist to ensure lawmakers, city council and school board members, county commissioners and other public bodies debate, deliberate and vote within the public’s view. Compliance with the OMA is basic to good government.”

For her part Baca said in a news release that she acknowledges the receipt of the determination on the investigation.

“We appreciate that the Department of Justice thanks us for our cooperation during the investigation, and we will expeditiously implement the DOJ’s recommended curative actions,” Baca said.

The commission is due to vote on ratifying the action. If it does so, the county search will proceed as planned.

Commissioners this week chose three top finalists:

Marcos Gonzales, the county’s executive development officer.

Cindy Chavez, a member of the Santa Clara County (California) Board of Supervisors.

Joseph Lessard, former city manager of Ashland, Oregon.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca is retiring June 30.

Jimenez wrote that the county is unlikely to be further sanctioned.

“While we reserve the right to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Act through the commencement of a civil action, we trust that our findings in this matter are sufficient to identify both the nature of the violation and, more importantly, the necessary corrective action that must be made,” he wrote.

HOW TO PARTICIPATE:

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. June 18
WHERE: Ken Sanchez Commission Chambers in BernalilloCounty@Alvarado Square, 415 Silver Ave SW
VIRTUAL: GOV-TV, on the county’s website or on Bernalillo County’s YouTube channel

 

 

 

Report says 'poor maintenance' led to deadly 2022 crash of firefighting helicopter in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A loss of engine power due to poor maintenance caused a 2022 helicopter crash in New Mexico that claimed the lives of four Bernalillo County first responders as they were returning home from a firefighting mission, according to federal investigators.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board issued a final report Wednesday. They also noted that a maneuver to account for the loss of power was complicated by the setting sun and low altitude and contributed to the crash of the Bell UH-1H helicopter.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said in a statement that the crash was devastating and deeply affected the department and the community.

Sheriff John Allen, when he took office in 2023, grounded the department's air support unit and overhauled procedures. The yearlong effort included revamping guidelines and acquiring a new aircraft that meets safety standards.

In light of the NTSB findings, Allen said it was clear the decision to pause and overhaul the program "was not only necessary but critical."

"We have taken every possible step to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again," he said.

Killed in the crash were Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King.

The crash marked the single deadliest incident for law enforcement in New Mexico history and one of the deadliest for first responders.

According to the investigation, an examination of the engine found that a gear failed because of fatigue, leading to a driveshaft shearing and a gearbox seizing. That resulted in a loss of engine power.

The report noted that before the crash, the oil was changed after a small piece of metal was discovered. Samples were sent to a lab, but investigators said the results were not used to troubleshoot the problem on the aircraft.

"Had the operator conducted an analysis, they could have potentially identified the deteriorating component and impending failure," the report stated.

Koren was piloting the helicopter on July 16 as the group returned from a wildfire on private land near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Authorities say the aircraft made an abrupt descent without any turns before hitting the ground.

Records show King, 44, managed to call 911. Despite being mortally wounded, he tried to lead rescuers to the remote crash site before dying from his injuries.

Koren, 55, was a veteran pilot who had been with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. Being the sole pilot at the time, his death had left the future of the air support unit uncertain. The sheriff's office relaunched the unit in December and along with the new safety measures, added an extra pilot and mechanic.

Overnight shelters, wall heights, boats in the front yard: See what zoning changes could be coming - Elizabeth McCall, City Desk ABQ

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ 

City councilors plan to discuss several zoning amendments at their Monday meeting that could impact neighborhoods or businesses across Albuquerque. The 11 proposals to the Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) touch on overnight shelters, duplexes, fence height and landscaping requirements.

Amendments already expected to be debated propose the following:

  • To allow small and medium-sized overnight shelters in certain zone districts and to prohibit large overnight shelters citywide. Currently, overnight shelters are allowed in some zones but are subject to a conditional approval by the Zoning Hearing Examiner (ZHE). The proposed amendment states that small shelters —  those with 10 or fewer beds — will be allowed in industrial, commercial and high density residential areas. While shelters up to 49 beds may require a zone hearing. 
  • To continue to allow boats and recreational vehicles to be parked in front, side and rear yards. A proposal from the Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) would make it illegal to park your big outdoor toys on the front lawn where others can see.
  • To increase the allowable height of some front yard walls or fences to 5 feet instead of 3 feet. Opponents argue that shorter walls are important, ensuring “eyes on the street” to watch out for suspicious activity in your neighbors’ yard. 
  • To allow duplexes in residential zone districts with single-family housing in or near urban centers, main street and premium transit areas. The proposed amendment states that if the property is an existing structure the duplex is allowed and if the property is vacant the duplex is allowed but subject to a conditional approval by the ZHE.
  • To require owners of “Tesla walls” and other home battery systems, also known as energy storage systems, to hide them behind walls and landscaping. The proposed amendment states that the rules will apply to the Public Service Company of New Mexico and privately developed facilities. 
  • To require a meeting between neighborhoods and developers after a site plan application to build a large apartment complex or non-residential development is filed. The meeting was previously optional. This was recommended by the city’s Alternative Dispute Resolution office. 
  • To remove a small 16 inch buffer between areas of change where higher density development is encouraged, and nearby areas of consistency, usually residential areas, where it is discouraged.
  • To revise the maximum size of a lot where “cottages” — clusters of small homes sharing a driveway and utilities — can be built to 3 acres, limit the number of cottage developments that can be next to each other and require a 330-foot separation between cottage developments. Currently, the IDO has the maximum size of a cottage development at 2 acres, but the EPC recommends increasing it to 5 acres. 
  • To increase opportunities for already developed properties to provide landscaping. According to the amendment, the city experiences the “urban heat island effect” and more landscaping in developed areas will reduce that effect and improve the city visually. 
  • To exempt corner lot buildings near the Rail Trail from some building height restrictions and reduce the percentage of required outdoor seating and gathering areas. The proposal seeks to provide more flexibility on how a site may be designed in proximity to the Rail Trail.
  • To allow the Animal Welfare Department to comment on development applications that involve keeping animals.

Learn more about the amendments here.

Program administrator outlines how waitlisted community solar projects will be selected - Hannah Grover, New Mexico Political Report 

The program administrator for New Mexico’s community solar program released guidance Thursday for waitlisted projects.

The new guidelines follow a petition from several developers who have projects on the waitlist, which led to an order from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission that provided some instructions on the selection of waitlisted projects.

The rules governing the community solar program are set up to ensure that no one developer receives the majority of the capacity from community solar projects. Because of that, the maximum amount that any one developer can be awarded in all of their projects is 20 percent of the 200 megawatt cap.

However, some of the businesses and organizations that have placed bids for community solar projects have waitlisted projects in addition to awarded bids. For some of those developers, if their waitlisted projects are approved, it might bring them above the 20 percent cap.

The new guidelines are in place to ensure that this does not happen.

In the notice to the participants, the program administrator, InClime, informed developers of the criteria that it will use when selecting waitlisted projects.

The guidelines state that projects—both approved and on the waitlist—may not increase in size for any reason, even if it was previously downsized. However, both selected and waitlisted projects may decrease in size if InClime approves. To have a project downsized, the developer needs to email InClime and include the reason for the decreased size as well as information about how the reduced size will impact the project.

Should a project be withdrawn or downsized, the freed-up capacity will be added to the additional capacity available within the investor-owned utility’s service territory where the original project was located. InClime will then start at the top of the waitlist and contact the first project that does not exceed the 20 percent developer cap. If there is not sufficient capacity available to allow the first project on the waitlist to be built at the proposed size, the developer will have the option to downsize. But even if the developer chooses not to downsize, the project will retain its position on the waitlist and InClime will not take further action until additional capacity is freed up.

But if a developer is in a position where they will exceed the 20 percent cap should a waitlisted project be approved, that developer can only have another project selected if it withdraws or downsizes a selected project so that the waitlisted one does not bring them over 20 percent of the state’s capacity. However, developers cannot downsize waitlisted projects to avoid exceeding the cap.

InClime states that when it chooses a project from the waitlist, it will notify the developer of every project that was skipped because of the 20 percent cap.

New research and dashboard details pedestrian and cyclist crashes in New Mexico – Daniel Montaño, KUNM News 

A new study from the University of New Mexico shows that while pedestrians are involved in only 2% of traffic crashes, they represent 20% of all crash-related fatalities.

UNM’s Geospatial and Population Studies used data from the New Mexico Department of Transportation on motor-vehicle crashes that involved pedestrians and cyclists from 2018 through 2022.

Researchers then builttwo interactive databases where users can explore and compare data based on time and/or location of incident, the severity of the crash, demographic data, injury severity and more.

The data shows that even though only 22% of all pedestrian crashes occurred in dark conditions, they resulted in almost half of all fatalities, and that 15% of all pedestrians in crashes were under the influence of alcohol.

A little more than half of all cyclist and pedestrian crashes in the state happened in Bernalillo County, which is also where more than half of all fatalities occurred for both types of accidents.

David Jacobs, senior program manager with the UNM-GPS Traffic Research Unit,told the UNM Newsroom that he wanted to explore the data so the public can “better understand how to avoid being in a pedestrian or bicycle traffic crash”