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Letters raise issue of nepotism at APS

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Documents released Friday by Albuquerque Public Schools raise questions about whether Gabriella Blakey, daughter of Board of Education President Don Duran, was eligible to be hired for her current role as associate superintendent for middle schools without violating the district’s nepotism policy.

BLAKEY: Is daughter of APS board president

BLAKEY: Is daughter of APS board president

But APS officials insist they followed appropriate hiring practices in reinstating Blakey from charter school leave and placing her in the new position in July.

At issue is APS’ nepotism policy, which does not allow the “initial” hire of a person who is “a family member of a Board of Education member, the superintendent, or the individual responsible for hiring and/or supervision of that family member.” Duran was elected to the school board in 2012.

If Blakey had resigned or been terminated by the district, she would be considered a new hire and be blocked by the nepotism rule.

A document released by APS on Friday says she was terminated in March of this year. But a district official says the termination doesn’t stand if an employee comes in and asks to return to the district within a certain period of time.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico, Blakey started working at APS in 1998 before being granted a one-year leave on June 4, 2012. A few weeks later, she received an extension on the leave, bringing it to July 23, 2015.

During her time away from APS, Blakey served as Santa Fe Public Schools’ assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development and as a member of the Santa Fe district’s Cabinet. She also started her own charter school.

On March 16 of this year, Blakey received a letter from APS, released to the Journal, saying her employment with APS “is terminated” because “New Mexico statutes no longer authorize leaves of absence to teach at charter schools.”

APS-letter-1“This letter offered you the option to be re-employed at APS for the 2015-2016 school year if you responded by March 1, 2015. You did not respond to APS’s offer for re-employment by the March 1, 2015 deadline.”

A March 18 letter to Blakey says her resignation has been accepted “with an effective date of April 6, 2015.”

But the next letter, dated June 29, states that Blakey has been reinstated “from extended leave of absence effective July 1, 2015.”

APS announced July 9 that Blakey had been named to the associate superintendent position.

Jessica Rivera, APS employee relations specialist, said Friday that Blakey’s reinstatement was allowed. She said Blakey could be reinstated as long as she asked for it before her approved leave ended July 23.

According to Rivera, Blakey came into APS offices and asked for the reinstatement June 29.APS-letter-2

“We didn’t treat Miss Blakey differently than anyone else,” Rivera said, adding that a teacher also was reinstated this year in the same fashion. “If you talk to us, we allow you to come back. … It is the process that we have – if they are coming right off of a leave and they want to come back, and we’re still on the (leave) time period, we do let them come back.”

In a July interview with the Journal, Duran said he did not know of his daughter’s appointment until late June, when he heard from APS Superintendent Luis Valentino.

Valentino told the Journal on Tuesday that Blakey is very well qualified for the associate superintendent job and that he didn’t even know she was Duran’s daughter until late in the hiring process.

He said he asked APS counsel Art Melendres to look into whether her hire would violate any policies and was told it would not.

Blakey’s role at APS involves overseeing the district’s 26 middle schools, which serve nearly 20,000 students. In past years, she was a principal at APS’ Eisenhower Middle School and assistant principal at Eldorado High School and Roosevelt Middle School.

The Journal requested documents regarding her status with APS after she was hired and was only provided copies of her leave documents. The Journal learned of the termination documents Friday afternoon, and APS then provided them.

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said she thought the original request only involved leave documents, and that’s what she requested.

Decision Monday

The latest development comes as the APS board is weighing the fate of Valentino, with its third closed-door meeting on his future set for Monday.

And many leaders – from the mayor to the governor – are seeking a final resolution.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said Friday that he is hopeful the final word on Valentino comes after Monday’s executive session.

“What we need to be concentrating on is the student in the classroom, and it’s important that the seven duly elected school board members make a decision and make it quickly – and I’m hopeful they will make that decision on Monday, so we can get back to the business of educating our kids,” he said.

Berry said he will respect the board’s judgment, however it falls, then continue his work with the “leadership at APS to make sure the educational experience is the best it can be from our standpoint.”

The missteps in the superintendent’s short tenure have centered on two people: APS Chief Financial Officer Don Moya and former Deputy Superintendent Jason Martinez, who was hand-picked for the job by Valentino shortly after his arrival.

Moya was placed on paid administrative leave by Valentino on Aug. 7 after a conflict arose over a request for proposal and after Valentino mistakenly sent him a text – intended for state Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera – saying he intended to “go after” him for running “roughshot.”

Martinez resigned Aug. 18, shortly before it came to light that he had not submitted to an APS background check and was facing assault and child sex assault charges in Denver.

The APS board met in a five-hour, closed-door session Sunday evening to discuss the issues, then scheduled a second executive session for Thursday with a public vote on the agenda. That vote never happened despite five more hours of debate. Instead, a third executive session is set for 7 a.m. Monday.

“The controversy takes time and energy away from our administrators and teachers,” Renata Witte, New Mexico Parent Teacher Association president, told the Journal in an interview.

“We have some really awesome teachers, we have amazing principals in Albuquerque Public Schools, and I know that they are working hard to make sure that the students in their school continue to have a good, solid, safe learning environment – and that’s really where the focus needs to be.”

Skandera, the state’s education secretary, also is urging progress.

“It’s in the best interest of the community for the local school board to quickly and decisively resolve this matter and turn their attention to supporting their students and schools,” her spokesman said in an emailed statement.