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Editorial: ’19 Legislature needs to tighten school firing rules

Adrian Alarcon

Albuquerque Public Schools has been trying to fire the Valley High School teacher and coach for the better part of four years over a physical altercation he had with a student. But its efforts have been thwarted by a successful legal challenge recently decided by the state Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, Adrian Alarcon – who has been on paid administrative leave since the 2014-2015 school year – has collected $168,000 in pay from APS, i.e., you – Joe and Jane taxpayer. Now he’s on track to walk away from the district with a payout due to a procedural glitch.

This, despite Alarcon having been criminally charged with child abuse after he allegedly grabbed a student and hurt her while grabbing a device she was recording him on at school. APS, in a court filing, says the teacher admitted he forcefully grabbed a phone held by the girl, attempting to make her delete a recording of the conversation they were having about him inadvertently touching her breast. Alarcon eventually pleaded guilty to criminal damage to property and interference with communication, was given a deferred sentence and put on probation.

But none of that seemed to matter when it came to the public’s wallet. It’s another one of those outrageous only-in-New-Mexico stories that leaves taxpayers cringing.

The Court of Appeals case came down to the bureaucratic process APS used as it tried to fire Alarcon. APS believed that a 2003 change in state law that placed school hiring, firing and day-to-day operations squarely under control of school district superintendents across the state meant that the APS superintendent had final say on terminations.

But the Court of Appeals sided with Alarcon and his attorney, holding that lawmakers left in place the state personnel code, which gives fired school employees the right to a hearing before the elected school board.

In the unanimous opinion, Judge Michael Vigil wrote that the Legislature mandated that the appeal be heard by the school board.

“At the very least, there is an appearance of impropriety in requiring an employee, such as teacher, to appear before his accuser, the superintendent,” the opinion states. “The Legislature left this decision to the elected members of the local board of education, who can take a more dispassionate view of the evidence and decide if an employee’s conduct warrants a discharge or some lesser sanction.”

Lawmakers in 2003 went to great lengths to take hiring and firing of school personnel out of the hands of school board members and make superintendents accountable for who works in a school district. They changed the law in an effort to minimize the politics that often came into play – the frustrating reality that a school board member can use their position as a jobs program, and that his/her relationship with an applicant or employee can be more important than an applicant’s credentials or an employee’s conduct.

It’s worth noting that some school districts previously recognized the conflict, yet continued to hold these types of hearings before school boards.

And so, the Court of Appeals’ decision is unfortunate.

Lawmakers and the next governor should update the law/pass a new one making it clear that superintendents – not school boards – have final say when it comes to firing a school employee.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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