Albuquerque Journal and KOB-TV filed a lawsuit Monday against the Albuquerque Public Schools board, arguing the district violated New Mexico’s open records law when it refused to make public an attorney’s report and related documents that led to former superintendent Winston Brooks’ resignation.
Brooks resigned Aug. 16 after the school board agreed to buy out the last two years of his contract for $350,000. The deal was made in a closed-door meeting.
The agreement was reached after school board President Analee Maestas in July hired private attorney Agnes Padilla to investigate an undisclosed “serious personnel issue” involving Brooks.
In Brooks’ resignation agreement, the board agreed to keep Padilla’s report in a secret personnel file and not to release it to anyone. The resignation agreement also made reference to Brooks’ wife, Ann.
APS has denied the Journal and KOB-TV’s requests for the report and related documents under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
The suit asks that the board and its records custodian, Rigo Chavez, be compelled to comply with their obligations to produce the records under that act.
“We think the public has a right to know” what was in the report that convinced the school board to pay Brooks $350,000 to leave his post, said Charles R. Peifer, attorney for the Journal . “Virtually no information about what led to this decision has been made public.”
The district has argued the report is exempt from the state’s public records act because it contains confidential personnel information protected by law and is protected by attorney-client privilege.
“They are relying on exceptions that we don’t think apply,” Peifer said.
The public is entitled to factual portions of the report, Peifer said, adding that neither exception gives the board the right to keep secret the facts contained in the report.
Maestas said she did not have a comment on the suit because it was pending litigation. She said she had been made aware of the suit Monday evening but had not read it.
Both a District Court judge and state Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera approved Brooks’ buyout agreement. Neither the state nor the judge weighed in, however, on whether APS should be allowed to keep the report secret.
When state District Judge Valerie A. Huling approved the buyout Aug. 29, she said her approval would not prohibit another judge from ruling the report should be made public.
The buyout agreement contains several clauses in which the district agreed not to file any legal complaints against Brooks or his wife. The district also promised not to “disparage the conduct, character, performance or ethics” of Brooks or his wife.
Similarly, Brooks agreed neither he nor his wife would disparage the APS board or the district’s administration.
Any violation of that agreement would result in “liquidated damages of $25,000,” plus possible attorney fees and other related costs.
“Without relief from this Court,” the suit says, “APS will succeed in keeping from the citizens of this County and State the basis for the APS’ decision to agree to the premature termination of the contract with the Superintendent of the State’s largest school system, to pay him $350,000 to leave his job, to release him and his spouse from undisclosed potential ‘claims,’ and to agree contractually to keep the basis for these actions secret from the public.”
Brooks had been the APS superintendent since July 2008. He signed a three-year rolling contract with the APS board, under which he was eligible for a one-year extension every year. His base salary was $250,000 a year plus a $51,500 yearly payment toward his Supplemental Retirement Plan.