SANTA FE – The New Mexico Public Education Department must pay a $485 fine and opposing attorney’s fees for violating the state’s open records law in its handling of a teachers union’s request for elusive documents, a state district judge ruled Thursday.
Santa Fe District Judge Sarah Singleton said the PED made a reasonable attempt to track down the requested records but did not respond in a timely and thorough manner.
“This to me is the kind of breach of the (open records) statute that is not egregious,” Singleton said in announcing her ruling.
The National Education Association-New Mexico filed a lawsuit in September 2014 arguing that the PED did not comply with three requests it had made under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
One of the three requests sought documents that would back up an assertion made by Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera that 99 percent of New Mexico teachers were rated effective under the state’s old educator evaluation system. Skandera had cited the figure in arguing in favor of a controversial new system the agency implemented in 2013.
However, PED officials testified Thursday that documents backing up the assertion could not be found within the agency. Matt Montaño, the agency’s director of educator quality, testified the figure actually stemmed from data culled by a previous PED staffer.
In its formal response to the teachers union, the Public Education Department provided only a brief description of that past research – not any actual documents.
In addition, the information was not provided to NEA until 27 days after the 90-day maximum deadline for complying with open records requests.
Charles Goodmacher, the teachers union’s director of government and media relations, said after Thursday’s court hearing that the ruling showed there was no factual basis for the 99 percent assertion.
“Today was a success for New Mexico’s students and teachers,” Goodmacher told reporters.
However, PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said the agency still stands behind its teacher evaluation claim.
“Regardless of today’s ruling, the fact remains that under the old, broken system, 99 percent of teachers were rated effective even though only half of our kids were proficient in reading and math,” McEntyre said in a statement. “Our students deserve better.”
He also said the agency tried to adhere to the Inspection of Public Records Act in processing public records requests.
Under state law, New Mexico government agencies generally have 15 days to provide most types of documents requested by anyone for any reason. However, up to 90 days is allowed for requests deemed to be burdensome.