WED: APS Announces Change Of Plan For Extra COVID-Related Payments, + More

May 26, 2021

APS Announces Change Of Plan For Extra COVID-Related Payments Following State Auditor Concerns – Nash Jones, KUNM News

Albuquerque Public Schools employees might not receive an extra payment the district promised them last week for COVID-related work.

APS Superintendent Scott Elder announced what he referred to as “extremely difficult news” by video Tuesday evening.

He told district employees the State Auditor’s office raised concerns that the payments of $1,000 for full-time employees and $500 for part-timers violates the anti-donation clause of the state constitution.

The clause prohibits public employees from having their contracts adjusted or receiving pay for work already done, according to the announcement.

APS last week told employees that the extra one-time payments would come out of the district’s COVID-19 relief funding and were intended to compensate workers for extra pandemic-related work over the last year.

Elder said the district is looking for federal guidance to support their efforts at making the payments.

He added that the district is working on a plan with several state departments, the Board of Education and the teachers’ union that adjusts the timeline. It would provide one-time extra payments related to future COVID-related tasks performed in the next school year, rather than past work.

Elder apologized for the change of plan and assured employees that the district will “get it right.”  

The Albuquerque Journal reports State Auditor Brian Colón said the district should have done “its homework” and confirmed the legality of the payments before promising them.

New Mexico Education Agency Suspends Los Lunas School Board – Associated Press

The Los Lunas school board has been suspended by the New Mexico Public Education Department over allegations that multiple board members violated ethical standards and procurement and public access laws.

State officials made the announcement Wednesday, saying that it first warned the board about violations in November and that training for board members followed in January and February.

Despite those efforts, the agency said certain unnamed board members persisted in engaging in improper conduct.

Board member Frank Otero said an email to The Associated Press that he wanted to assure people he was not among those accused of wrongdoing.

The other members did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Los Lunas Superintendent Arsenio Romero said he couldn’t comment on the allegations but said in a letter to staff that he planned to work with Education Secretary Ryan Stewart to ensure that the school district complies with all orders and actions by the state agency.

With the suspension, the board members are not allowed to contact school staff or use school equipment or facilities and they cannot use the board’s attorney to represent them.

The Public Education Department said it has credible evidence that one or more board members knowingly misrepresented information in public meetings, violated the state public records law by not producing records as required and bypassed procurement procedures by demanding contracts for goods and services be awarded to certain vendors.

Other claims include falsifying allegations about financial misconduct, interfering with personnel matters and demanding that family members be hired.

State officials said the information about the violations also was sent to state police and the state auditor's office.

Española Journalist Sues Sherrif, County For Harassment And Retaliation - KUNM News

The Rio Arriba County Sheriff's office is being sued for allegedly harassing and retaliating against a journalist who reported on police misconduct.

The lawsuit filed today by the ACLU of New Mexico and Rothstein Donatelli lawfirm for Tabatha Clay, who reported in the Rio Grande Sun that a deputy unlawfully tased a minor.

According to the suit the Sheriff’s office responded to Clay’s article by denying her records and dispatch reports and that officers threatened to arrest her at the scene of a car crash, forbid her to enter a courthouse with reporting equipment, and then attempted to intimidate her by parking outside her apartment at night.

The lawsuit brings claims against the Rio Arriba County Sherriff’s office, the Board of County Commissioners, Sheriff James D. Lujan, and former Deputy Jeremy Barnes for retaliation and violation of Clay’s First Amendment rights. 

Through the ACLU Clay said, “I’m bringing this suit to send a clear message to the sheriff and deputies that their attempts to bully reporters into giving up their First Amendment rights won’t go unanswered.”

*****Rothstein Donatelli LLP is a financial supporter of KUNM. US Wildlife Managers Propose Protections For Rare Chicken – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

U.S. wildlife managers on Wednesday proposed federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, saying its habitat across five states is in danger of becoming more fragmented and the effects of climate change and drought are expected to take a further toll on the species in the future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday said it will consider public comments and scientific information over the coming months before making a final determination.

Once listed as a threatened species, the chicken’s habitat spans parts of five states — including a portion of New Mexico’s oil-rich Permian Basin. Environmentalists have been pushing to reinstate federal protections for years.

Landowners and the oil and gas industry have been working on voluntary conservation programs. Still, federal officials say threats remain. They're proposing to list the northern population as threatened and those in eastern New Mexico and the southern Texas Panhandle as endangered.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 classified the bird as a threatened species, but the agency was forced to remove it from the list two years later following court rulings that determined the agency failed to properly consider the voluntary conservation efforts.

New Mexico Increases COVID-19 Death Toll By 114 After Audit - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico have added more than 110 coronavirus-related deaths to the state death toll on Monday after completing an audit of public health records.

The state Department of Health added 114 deaths to the final report released last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported. All but one death was added because of the audit.

Department spokesman David Morgan said the toll was adjusted to 4,245 virus-related deaths after the audit identified inaccurate data and addressed incomplete information, including asking hospitals in Texas that were handling COVID-19 patients from New Mexico.

Each of the fatalities added to the death toll were directly caused by COVID-19, Morgan said, noting that the state was reporting more than 40 deaths daily at the height of the pandemic in December.

"It's very difficult under the best of circumstances to keep up," Morgan said.

Health officials also reported 366 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases for the three-day period from Saturday through Monday. 

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, breathing trouble, sore throat, muscle pain and loss of taste or smell. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia. Sometimes people with a coronavirus display no symptoms.

New Mexico Proposes New Rules For Recreational Pot GrowersMorgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico on Tuesday took its first major regulatory steps toward legal production of recreational marijuana, publishing lengthy proposed ground rules for cannabis businesses that outline future licensing fees, quality controls, audit requirements and criminal background checks for producers.

The state Regulation and Licensing Department announced the start of a public comment period that will culminate with a June 29 hearing as the agency asserts control over the recreational marijuana legalization effort. The proposal would allow larger marijuana crops per business — nearly three times the current 1,750 plant limit for medical cannabis growers.

"Today's proposed rules don't mean the conversation is over," agency Superintendent Linda Trujillo said in a statement. "Through public comment, public hearings and ongoing conversations, we will continue to strengthen these rules to ensure the best possible outcomes."

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the legalization bill last month. It authorized recreational marijuana sales no later than April 1, 2022. 

The law beginning June 29 will allow people age 21 and over to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana. By April 2022, people will be allowed to grow up to six plants at home, or 12 per household.

The state faces a Sept. 1 deadline to begin issuing licenses to marijuana producers. That should allow time for growers to scale up production so they can meet initial market demand.

The proposed rules would apply to large-scale cannabis producers, tiny marijuana microbusinesses and specialized growers of medical cannabis.

Applicants must provide proof they have valid water rights, describe any past criminal convictions and provide assurances that their businesses will operate at least 300 feet away from schools or daycare centers. 

Regulators would have discretion over what constitutes a disqualifying criminal conviction. The proposed rules specifically cited fraud, deceit, embezzlement and drug trafficking.

Local governments would have the power to limit the locations of marijuana businesses and their hours of operation under zoning ordinances, though current medical marijuana dispensaries will not have to relocate.

The Albuquerque City Council already is considering a proposal to bar cannabis businesses from the historic city center, the Route 66 corridor and within 300 feet of areas zoned for residential or mixed use.

The proposed state regulations would increase the cap on the number of plants per producer to 4,500 under a tiered licensing system.

The largest producers that grow more than 3,500 mature plants at a time will pay a slightly higher annual per-plant fee of $22, versus $18 for lower-level industrial farms.

Production caps under the state's medical marijuana program, founded in 2007, have been a constant source of legal challenges and criticism by patients who complain of high prices and limited supplies.

Regulators are seeking authority to intervene in the event of a medical marijuana shortage with a set-aside quota of up to 25% of crops, 10% of retail inventory and reduced licensing fees on medical pot plants. Under the new legalization law, taxes are waived on sales of limited quantities of medical marijuana, bringing the commodity in line with other medication.

Microbusinesses that grow up to 200 plants would fall under a separate fee and oversight arrangement.

The licensing requirements for pot producers represent only the first round of regulations for the industry as the state sets up the permit process for cannabis servers, licenses for cannabis-industry training programs and more by the start of 2022.

The agency talked with established medical marijuana producers to develop the regulatory framework for recreational marijuana producers, Trujillo said.

New Mexico Schools Reject Millions In Funding, Learning DaysCedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Amid pressure from some parents and teachers, public schools across New Mexico have rejected tens of millions of dollars in state funding for extra learning days.

Each "no" vote from local school boards is a blow to the state Legislature's signature education initiative. 

Based on years of research about how best to improve academic outcomes for children and narrow the achievement gap for struggling students, the plan takes aim at the three idle summer months that hold back many students. The research found that extending the school year with the same teacher is more effective than summer school.

The measure would add 25 more days to the elementary school calendar which lawmakers hoped would boost dismal reading and math scores.

But even parents of children who are behind opposed additional learning time, demanding that their summer be kept long.

Until this year, extended learning programs were voluntary, and parents could decide if they wanted their kids to participate.

Now, parents like Lisa McCutchen, 33, of Carlsbad, feel like the state is "tying my hands as a parent and saying, we know better than you what your kids need."

The struggle to reimagine New Mexico's education system has been further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and what many have referred to as a lost year of learning.

In a weeks-long debate, Democratic legislative leaders considered making all extra days mandatory for children in all districts for the post-pandemic year. They compromised by dropping a statewide mandate and instead requiring participation by all students only at those schools that opted in. 

The results are mixed: around twice as many children are expected to participate in programs this year, according to statistics from the Public Education Department. But many children will be left behind, regardless of how badly they need support.

Superintendents have cited various barriers to extending the school year.

"Teachers like to have their breaks. Teachers need that break, to be able to replenish themselves to get ready for next year," said West Las Vegas Schools Superintendent Christopher Gutierrez, whose district opted to use federal funding for summer school and pass on state funding for extended learning. 

In Carlsbad, the district's 3-2 vote against added learning days left $15 million in state funding on the table at a time when officials are preparing for a steep decline in enrollment. Fewer babies born in the past decade will mean fewer students in the next one. And families in rural southeast New Mexico have left the state as oil and gas revenues continue declining. Meanwhile, proficiency rates have dropped even lower than pre-pandemic rates, when only 37% of students were proficient in reading and less than one-quarter were proficient in math.

Superintendent Gerry Washburn used the metaphor of a child in a wheelchair trying to get into a building. He said extra learning days for elementary students is "one of the few opportunities that we have to create a ramp for them to move forward."

While McCutchen, in Carlsbad, said she can move her two sons forward by helping them at home, she acknowledged that not all families are as supportive due to job constraints, substance abuse, and other issues. McCutchen has a flexible schedule working with her husband. Together they run a construction business and a ranch. 

She fears that adding school days this year could lead to year-round school in the future. She said a shorter summer also would interrupt plans to take her kids to the family ranch in Colorado where they'll be learning on a working farm.

"The ones that are invested into their kids' lives and education, they'll be okay," said Carlsbad school board member Simon Rubio, adding that other kids not represented by parents at a recent meeting "don't have a voice."

Calls from parents and teachers opposed to extended learning have not only been louder, they've been more frequent.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said the majority staff and community voted against adding more days.

Some parents support the extra time in an effort to reverse the "summer slide."

"We don't need a three-month summer. They just need some time off and then they go back," said mom Rebecca Baca-Green, a solar saleswoman in Albuquerque in favor of a year-round school year. "I think there is a loss of learning that happens during the summer."

She was able to send her 12-year-old to a college prep charter school with a longer calendar, but she fears for low-income families with less secure jobs who often juggle swing shifts and gig work.

New Mexico's education system routinely ranks last in the U.S. About 80% of its students are covered by a court ruling that found education falls short of constitutional standards, while two-thirds of its third graders are not proficient in reading and a similar fraction is behind in math. 

Those statistics are expected to worsen due to the pandemic, as legislative analysts highlighted that students are behind  anywhere from six weeks to nearly 30 weeks depending on the subject.

New Mexico schools already have fewer in-class days than many other states, in part because some districts have adopted a four-day model in an effort to attract teachers.

The Legislature passed the changes for extended learning with only weeks left for districts to poll parents and plan accordingly.

Jeannie Oakes, an expert at the Learning Policy Institute who has published research on New Mexico schools, said the state should give districts a full year to plan extending the learning year.

The state also offers a program targeted at older kids to add 10 days to the school year.

The Santa Fe district added 10 days — five at the beginning of the school year and the rest sprinkled throughout. Superintendent Veronica García called it "fairly painless" but noted that it was late notice for some parents who had already put down deposits on summer programs.

"If I were queen for a day, I would just add (the 10 days) to compulsory education and slowly incrementally move this forward," she said, urging New Mexico to increase the number of school days to that of high-performing countries. "Internationally, kids go to school 10 months out of the year."

New Mexico Rules To Curb Oil Industry Emissions Take EffectAssociated Press

New Mexico's new rules to limit most venting and flaring in the oilfield as a way to reduce methane emissions are now in effect. 

State officials are billing the rules, published Tuesday in the New Mexico Register, as some of the strongest gas capture requirements in the nation. Unlike other states, New Mexico's rules also apply to the midstream sector, which collects natural gas from wells for processing.

It took nearly two years to develop the rules. Virtual public hearings were held and state regulators heard from environmental advocates and technical experts from the industry.

The first phase of implementation begins in October with data collection and reporting to identify natural gas losses at every stage of the process. With this information, regulators will then require operators — from those that manage pipelines to smaller wells and other infrastructure — to capture more gas each year. 

The target is capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026. If operators fail, regulators can deny drilling permits.

The rules are one part of a two-pronged approach by the state to address climate change. Still pending are rules being drafted by the Environment Department that would target oilfield equipment that emits methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

Firefighter Critically Injured Battling New Mexico WildfireAssociated Press

A wildland firefighter was critically injured while fighting a wildfire on private land in southwestern New Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border, state officials said Tuesday.

The firefighter works for the U.S. Forest Service and was injured Monday while fighting a fire in the Animas Mountains in Hidalgo County, the Forestry Division of the state Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department said in a statement.

The firefighter's identity wasn't released.

Division spokeswoman Wendy Mason said during a telephone interview that the firefighter is a member of an elite hotshots crew but that information on how the firefighter was injured wasn't immediately available.

The firefighter was in critical condition Tuesday at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, according to the statement.

The fire had burned 350 acres in very rugged terrain along the Continental Divide and its cause was under investigation, the statement said.

Man Sentenced To 5 Life Terms In Killings Of Wife, Daughters - Associated Press

A New Mexico man who pleaded no contest in the 2016 killings of his wife and their four daughters ages 3-14 faces five consecutive life sentences.

Juan David Villegas-Hernandez's pleas to five counts of first-degree murder ended his trial on May 13 and he was sentenced May 19 by state District Judge Dustin K. Hunter.

"Horror is what occurred to this family," Hunter said during the sentencing in the Chaves County courthouse in Roswell.

While prosecutors said Villegas-Hernandez shot Cynthia Villegas and their daughters after he learned that his wife planned to divorce him, Villegas-Hernandez maintained his innocence and said another person was responsible for the killings.

Prosecutors said Villegas-Hernandez shot the victims at close range at their home before fleeing to Mexico. He was apprehended by Mexican authorities and later extradited.

Consecutive life sentences were the only just outcome, said Scot Key, district attorney for New Mexico's 12th Judicial District.

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