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Albuquerque Public Schools is asking a judge to decide whether the state Public Education Department is overstepping its authority, breaking the law and acting unconstitutionally in how it has been handling Hawthorne Elementary School’s plans for improvement.
In an appeal filed Aug. 3, the district says Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski’s decisions on Hawthorne, which included possible closure due to six consecutive F school grades, were “contrary to law.”
After months of back and forth negotiations between PED and APS, the district is appealing PED’s resolve on Hawthorne, specifically pointing to an email dated July 6 in which Ruszkowski reinforced that APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy had to agree to Hawthorne’s improvement plan and all its conditions, including possible closure.
APS is requesting that next steps at the school pause until a judge makes a decision.
Hawthorne was one of three APS schools that required “more rigorous intervention” due to their strings of low grades. APS submitted plans for all three; PED approved two of them while rejecting Hawthorne’s, insisting on a clause that says it could close. Hawthorne has opened this year with several reforms in place, including a longer school year and longer school day.
APS argues 10 points in its appeal, filed in state District Court in Santa Fe, that say Ruszkowski’s conditions for the school, requirements on the district and its threats of closure were outside the bounds of what PED can do.
In response, PED told the Journal that it is the department’s job to put the state Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan into effect.
“It is common knowledge that New Mexico has the top-rated State Plan in the nation under ESSA – and it is our duty to implement it in full – both the letter and the spirt (sic) of it,” Ruszkowski wrote in the statement.
And PED argues APS would not have tried to improve Hawthorne if PED hadn’t stepped in.
“The simple act of telling the truth and putting students first has already prompted change for the community – what would have happened if NMPED did nothing last year? If history is any indicator, nothing,” the statement says.
No legal authority
APS’ appeal says PED is breaching its own ESSA plan by requiring the district to proceed with a different improvement plan than the district designated. It also calls into question whether the plan can even be enforced. The appeal contends that PED’s ESSA state plan did not go through the process required by state agencies when proposing a new “Rule” and it was not filed with the state records center.
“The Secretary lacks legal authority to enforce the Plan because it is neither a statute nor a rule,” the appeal states.
The appeal further claims state statutes “do not contain any grant of authority to the Secretary or PED by the New Mexico Legislature which would permit the closure of a school.”
Reedy has been adamant that she will not sign anything that calls for closing Hawthorne.
When PED denied Hawthorne’s redesign plans – while it approved nearly identical restructuring plans for the other two MRI schools – the state department required the district to inform parents about higher-performing schools and facilitate any desired transfers, an option known as “champion and provide choice.”
Violates state plan?
But the appeal says that requiring a different course of action for Hawthorne violates PED’s ESSA state plan.
“The Plan calls for the school districts, not PED, to designate the chosen MRI,” the appeal says.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is an Obama-era national education law that allowed state educational agencies like PED to develop consolidated plans. New Mexico’s was approved in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Education.
The court document goes on to say the MRI process overall isn’t in accordance with the state Constitution’s requirement to have a uniform public schools system.
“By its very nature, the MRI designation does not provide for uniform treatment of New Mexico public schools. The MRI designation, instead, provides for ‘more rigorous’ treatment of a select set of public schools,” it says.
The appeal references a lawsuit and preliminary injunction on teacher evaluations, too.
Since the injunction bars teacher evaluations from being used for negative consequences, the appeal says complying with PED’s initial condition to staff the MRI school with teachers based on their evaluation rankings would lead to violating the injunction and it also states the school grading system uses the same measures the injunction addressed.
PED wrote in its statement that APS should focus on giving students access to better schools, top-performing teachers and $2 million more in resources.
“But instead of embracing change and opportunity, APS is blocking its own students from getting everything they deserve,” the statement concludes.
PED has up to 30 days to give an official response to the appeal.
School grades are expected later this month, which PED says it is waiting for before declaring its next steps at the school.