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El Camino Real School Principal Resigns Post

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
          The principal of a South Valley charter school resigned this week after more than four months of administrative leave.
        Pamela Engstrom's resignation Thursday was part of an agreement she made with El Camino Real Charter School's governing board in January, board chairman Jim Nessle said.
        "We agreed to part company under these terms," Nessle said.
        In an email to the Journal Thursday, Engstrom said she has submitted her concerns about the school to "a higher authority," but would not elaborate, citing an ongoing investigation.
        Engstrom was put on leave in November after allegations of a hostile work environment and her handling of a $1.1 million federal School Improvement Grant. She was hired last year after the charter was told it needed to restructure its administration because it ranks as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
        Camino Real was listed as the third worst-performing school in New Mexico by the Public Education Department, which made it eligible for the federal School Improvement Grant. Last spring, 5.6 percent of students were proficient in math and 24 percent were proficient in reading.
        In an interview earlier this year, Engstrom said she had begun to question the school's spending, including the $1 million spent annually toward rent, $90,000 for speech and language pathologists, and employees lacking certification for their jobs. The school also lacked a core reading program.
        The school's lease payments for the renovated South Isleta strip mall it uses as a campus had also come under fire in a 2010 Legislative Finance Committee report. The school's lease payment was nearly twice what two other large charter schools pay the same landlord in other parts of town, according to APS figures.
        The board this week named acting Principal Gene Johnson to the full-time position.
        "He has got both the respect and the appreciation of the staff, and that's excellent," Nessle said. "We have very good chemistry now, and a very good relationship with APS."
        Both had been paid the principal salary during that time — $80,000 a year.
        The school renegotiated its controversial $1 million annual lease down to about $700,000, Nessle said, which helped toward the payment of two principals. The school must use operational dollars, which pay employee salaries, to offset the cost of the rent. Additionally, there has been a decrease in teacher absences resulting in fewer substitute teacher days used.
        The school's enrollment is about 485, which is more than 100 fewer students than in 2009-10. That has reduced the school's budget, which is based on enrollment, from $5.2 million to $3.8 million.
        Charters are public schools that run independently of school districts, although they receive authorization through the state or local districts.