A high-level Albuquerque Public Schools administrator at the center of questions about nepotism says she never received letters from APS human resources informing her she had been terminated after being on leave for almost three years and that she always intended to return to APS.
Gabriella Blakey, daughter of APS Board of Education President Don Duran, said that, as far as she knew, she was coming back from three years of charter school leave when then-Superintendent Louis Valentino appointed her as APS associate superintendent of middle schools in June.
Blakey initially took a leave from APS to co-found a charter school in Albuquerque. She subsequently moved on to an administrative post at Santa Fe Public Schools and was an employee of that school district before she resigned and returned to APS and a $126,000-a-year position overseeing 26 middle schools in June.
The question of her employment status has come up because APS’ nepotism policies prohibit the hiring of a direct relative of a board member.
APS officials say Blakey was not a “new hire” even though she had been sent a termination letter and a resignation letter and was working for another school district at the time she took the new job at APS.
Documents released to the Journal by APS in response to a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act show the district mailed Blakey three letters regarding her leave, which stressed that she needed to contact the district or she would be terminated.
APS human resources sent the letters to Blakey’s current address, according to APS spokesman Rigo Chavez, who said the district has no way of knowing if she received two of them. The third, a certified mail letter, was returned to APS.
Karen Rudys, APS’s interim assistant superintendent for human resources, said her office had mailed the letters, then followed up with a phone call telling Blakey only that her leave was set to expire.
Blakey said she had heard that some people are questioning whether she benefitted from nepotism but has received a warm welcome back to APS.
“I have been established in this school district for the past 15 years on my own, with my own reputation, my own credibility, my own résumé I built for myself,” she said. “People know me for the principal and educator I am on my own. I have had a lot of support from a lot of people who are happy and welcoming me with open arms back to the district, actually.”
First hired by APS in 1998, Blakey received approval for charter school leave in 2012 to help launch Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque, with the one-year leave period extended twice.
On Jan. 27 of this year, the district mailed Blakey a letter saying charter school leave would no longer be offered and that she needed to contact APS by March 1 to inform officials whether she wanted to be reinstated after her leave, otherwise her APS contract would be terminated.
Next, APS mailed a letter March 16 saying Blakey’s “employment with APS is terminated” because she had not contacted the district within the time limit.
On March 18, the district mailed a final letter to Blakey stating that her resignation had been accepted effective April 6. This letter, sent by certified mail, was returned to the district.
Blakey told the Journal she had not received any of these letters and knew nothing of them until they were reported in the news media at the end of August.
“I just had the paperwork that said my leave goes through to July 23,” she said.
Blakey filed to return from leave June 29 and was reinstated effective July 1, when she started in the associate superintendent position.
Rudys said the termination letters didn’t affect Blakey’s return because APS procedure allows employees to return to the district as long as they ask for reinstatement before the end of their charter school leave – despite the termination letters.
Since Blakey did respond before her leave was up, she was welcomed back, Rudys said.
“The point is that even if somebody got a termination letter, we would be able to reinstate them if they chose to return from charter leave,” she added.
Until the charter leave period is over, the employee is still in the APS system as “on leave” – regardless of the termination and resignation letters with effective dates well before the leave’s end, Rudys said.
All types of leave work the same way, Rudys said – the employee’s status is only changed if she notifies the district that she won’t be back.
Rudys said APS didn’t bend the rules for Blakey, noting that a teacher came back from charter school leave this summer through the same process as Blakey.
Charter leave rules
In September 2014, Blakey got a job with Santa Fe Public Schools as assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development.
Chavez said it was not a problem that Blakey was on charter school leave even though she wasn’t working at a charter school.
He explained that APS does not have the manpower to track where employees on charter school leave end up. In addition, charter schools can be unstable, sometimes leading to closures that force those on charter school leave to find other jobs.
“We don’t check to see if they are at charter school A, B or C or have gone to work for another school – as long as they are on charter school leave, that is the status they have with the district,” Chavez said.
Blakey said she looked into whether she was following proper leave procedures when she applied to be APS associate superintendent of middle schools in July 2014 – ending up a finalist but not getting hired. Blakey was then still working for the charter school.
“All of this conversation about leave came up at that time, when I was interviewing, and when I went into the final interview to make sure everything with the leave would be OK,” she said.
The former APS middle school principal also stressed that she always intended to come back.
“I left with many people knowing that my dedication is to Albuquerque Public Schools,” Blakey said. “I was taking a leave of absence but always had the intention of coming back.”
Blakey’s appointment was one of several made by Valentino, who himself only came to Albuquerque in May after a career with San Francisco Public Schools. He also brought on Chief of Staff Toni Cordova, who previously had worked for the search firm involved with his hiring, and Deputy Superintendent Jason Martinez, a former Denver Public Schools administrator with curriculum expertise.
Martinez resigned Aug. 18, shortly before it came to light that he is facing child sexual assault and other assault charges in Denver. Valentino resigned Aug. 31.