ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque Public Schools board members have mixed opinions about whether the district should grant paid “political leave” to employees who are state lawmakers while they are away from work on legislative business.
The issue became salient after reports on KRQE-TV about APS paying House Majority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, her salary while she was in Santa Fe on legislative business. According to a Journal analysis, she was paid more than $63,000 in salary during the past three years while she was away from her administrative job as coordinator of vocational education.
Stapleton’s paid leave was approved by supervisors even though it wasn’t allowed under district policy. That policy said all nonteachers who served in the Legislature should take unpaid leave while in Santa Fe.
APS’s contract with the teachers union, however, allowed teachers and counselors to be paid by APS while performing legislative duties, without requiring them to take vacation or personal leave.
In addition to her APS salary, Stapleton also receives a state per diem while on legislative business, which is based on the federal rate. It is paid to all lawmakers, and in the past three years it has ranged from $145 to $180 per day.
From the beginning of 2009 through July 31 of this year, she collected per diem for legislative sessions and 105 days between sessions, totaling about $39,000 in per diem and other reimbursements.
The controversy over Stapleton prompted Superintendent Winston Brooks to change district policy so any employee can now receive his or her salary while attending legislative sessions, plus 10 days for other legislative business outside the sessions.
Prior to the change there was no limit to how much time employees could take, and Stapleton was away from work for 50 days one year on legislative business, in addition to the actual sessions. It is unclear from per diem records whether those were entire days, or whether she took partial days off to attend committee meetings.
Under the new policy, if more time is needed, employees will have to take personal time or unpaid leave.
Stapleton, in an interview this week, said she was always in touch with her supervisors while in Santa Fe and that she was never asked to take unpaid leave. She also provided documentation showing she used time between hearings at the Roundhouse to fulfill APS duties.
“I work seven days a week, 365 days a year, because I’m a salaried employee and I have to get my work done,” Stapleton said. “My work still continues when I’m in the Legislature, and somebody has to do it.”
Board member David Robbins, during a meeting on Wednesday, voiced opposition to Brooks’ decision to change the policy.
“I believe it is inappropriate for APS to be expending state funds to pay someone to serve in the state Legislature,” Robbins said. “I think you can only serve one master.”
Two other board members spoke in support of the change.
“I think it’s the right thing to do for every employer in the state,” board president Paula Maes said. She said many New Mexicans can’t afford to take unpaid leave to serve in the Legislature, which narrows the pool of people who can serve to those who are retired or financially comfortable.
“Until we as a state stand up and pay our legislators to be up there, then employers should pay them so they can truly represent us,” said Maes, who also lobbies during legislative sessions.
APS employs two other legislators besides Stapleton: Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, who is a high-school teacher, and Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque, a counselor.
In addition to the teachers’ salaries, APS must hire substitutes to teach their classes when they are out on legislative business.
Lewis and Sanchez are both covered by the Albuquerque Teachers Federation collective bargaining agreement, which grants them paid leave for their political duties. Stapleton, who works at the APS central office, is not covered by that agreement.
Some of the documents giving Stapleton the same benefit were signed by former superintendent Beth Everitt. Another, signed by Chief Academic Officer Linda Sink and placed in Stapleton’s file, includes procedures for Stapleton to make up missed time. The memo outlines a plan for Stapleton to keep track of APS work completed while in Santa Fe, using spare time or evenings.
The memo also says: “We are appreciative of having a state legislator as an employee. To that end, we have established this process to accommodate this situation.”
Stapleton said this week that she always lived up to that obligation.
“I discussed with my immediate supervisors when I was going to Santa Fe,” Stapleton said. “I discussed with them the projects I was working on, I discussed with them what the staff in my office was supposed to be doing and the timeline on projects, and I came back and forth from Santa Fe to meetings that were held in the district when I could.”
Stapleton produced several binders, which document work completed while away from APS for legislative reasons. She said her computer in Santa Fe can log her onto the APS system where she works between hearings. She produced records of memos, requisitions and other APS-related work, all dated during legislative sessions.
She also showed agendas of afternoon APS meetings that she drove back from Santa Fe to attend during past sessions.
Stapleton earns an annual salary from APS of $68,862.14. According to a Journal analysis, she has collected a total of about $63,300 in APS leave pay in the past three years for legislative sessions, special sessions and committee meetings between sessions.
Brooks said this week that he hadn’t realized there was a discrepancy in district policy that allowed some employee-legislators to receive pay, but not others.
“That’s not right,” Brooks said. “It’s not fair in my opinion that one employee group has a certain set of benefits and another group or groups do not.”
Brooks also emphasized that he did not change the policy to specifically benefit Stapleton.
“I wasn’t doing that for Sheryl. I did it because it was brought to my attention that the teachers had a benefit that no other employees had,” Brooks said. “And if this is truly a citizen legislature, then custodians, school secretaries, educational assistants, principals, central office administrators, should have the same right as teachers have. So I made it consistent.”
Journal staff writer Sean Olson contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal