Top-rated charter school threatens suit against Rio Rancho district

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The standoff over a nationally rated charter school’s attempt to expand into Rio Rancho continues to heat up.

The latest salvo was delivered by the attorney for the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science to the Rio Rancho School Board, contending that the board’s original vote to file a lawsuit halting the second school was illegal and the lawsuit should be void.

AIMS attorney Marty Esquivel says the Board of Education was required to hold a public vote to approve the lawsuit in 2014, but he can find no record of it.

Last week, Esquivel sent Rio Rancho Public Schools attorney Charlotte Hetherington a letter threatening to sue for an open meetings violation if he did not receive an explanation by Aug. 30.

“It is incumbent upon the Board to acknowledge its violation and withdraw its lawsuit on that basis,” he wrote.

In 2014, the district sued the state Public Education Department in Santa Fe’s 1st Judicial District Court over a waiver granted to AIMS, a top-rated college preparatory school housed on the UNM South campus in Albuquerque.

The waiver gave AIMS permission to open a second location at UNM West – within Rio Rancho’s boundaries – without applying for a new charter. Typically, charter schools must be reauthorized if they expand outside their original district.

In May, Judge David K. Thomson ruled in AIMS’ favor, saying former Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and her department acted within their authority in granting the waiver. “Public interest in this case would be subverted by allowing the Plaintiff-Appellant (the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board) to delay an appropriate exercise of the waiver authority of the Secretary,” Thomson wrote in his ruling.

The order pointed out that AIMS had received a Daniels Fund grant to try to replicate the success of its first school by using a different location, teachers and students. “If it can be established that the model will lead to success in more than one environment, it may be possible to provide this model, this option, to more students in New Mexico,” the order said.

The school board appealed, claiming Thomson’s ruling used “an overbroad interpretation of the scope of the Secretary’s authority.” The Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case.

Regarding Esquivel’s contention that the original vote was illegal, Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Vesely told the Journal that the district believes the board is not required to publicly vote on threatened or pending litigation.

Esquivel disagreed and said discussions about defending a lawsuit can be held in a private executive session, but state law requires a board’s policy decision to spend money – even to initiate a lawsuit – must be made publicly.

“I think if a school district is going to file a lawsuit with taxpayer money, which has the net effect of blocking a charter school which can offer more AP options to students in Rio Rancho, then that is something that needs to be discussed in the open before its community,” Esquivel said. “It shouldn’t be a secretly conducted discussion and decision by policy makers in a vacuum.”

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government executive director Peter St. Cyr agreed that the lawsuit is “moot” without a public vote.

He added that NMFOG supports public discussions of potential policies.

“We don’t want public policies being decided behind closed doors,” St. Cyr said. “The public has the right to know what is informing, shaping and directing these kinds of decisions and to hold their school board members accountable for the votes they make.”

AIMS director Kathy Sandoval has said she believes the district’s objection is really “all about turf.”

“Everyone in Rio Rancho was welcoming except the school district,” she said.

Gary Tripp, the district’s chief of staff and engagement, stressed that administrators want charter schools to follow proper procedure and they have nothing against AIMS specifically.

“I don’t think this is a turf war,” he said. “There is a process that is clearly defined. We want to make sure the process is followed.”

Rio Rancho’s ASK Academy charter school adhered to the procedure and has a good relationship with the district, Tripp said.

The New Mexico School Superintendent’s Association and the New Mexico School Boards Association both support the district’s position on AIMS’ attempt to locate in Rio Rancho.

Sandoval said Rio Rancho Public Schools’ “heavy hand” is denying families access to a “proven, flexible and accountable education system.”

Over 1,800 children are on a wait list to attend AIMS.

The Washington Post recently rated AIMS the best school in New Mexico and 43rd in the nation. Currently, AIMS has about 350 students in grades six through 12.

Sandoval vowed to keep pushing to open the UNM West location.

Originally, the site was slated to launch in fall 2014 with 40 sixth-graders, adding a new grade each year until the school enrolled about 350 students.

UNM West had given AIMS two classrooms, and Sandoval said some of her teachers had moved to Rio Rancho.

“Rio Rancho parents and students have told us they want our type of education,” Sandoval said. “The Rio Rancho City Council has embraced us. There is obviously a need and a strong desire for our school.”

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