With COVID-19 cases surging amidst a scarcity of tests, it’s easy to imagine many families have expressed hesitation about sending their children back to in-person learning, which resumed this Tuesday for Santa Fe Public Schools students following winter break.
One parent who expressed concern about the return to classrooms was an elected school board member: Secretary Sarah Boses.
In a post to a Facebook group for Santa Fe parents, Boses wrote on Tuesday: “We decided to keep our kids home this week. We are very privileged to be able to do so. It’s not so much that I feel worried about the existing safety measures in place, more that we feel worried about people - all the travel, lack of testing availability, and knowledge of how many people are sick right now.”
Boses continues, “I’m not resigned to the idea that ‘everyone is going to get it any way’ [sic] even though that seems to be the messaging from the government right now.”
In an email sent to her children’s school that Boses shared with SFR, she reaffirmed faith in the district’s existing safety measures, but noted some exceptions. “I do wish that mandatory testing was required before returning to school and that N95/KN95 were in use for everyone in the school building as well as consistent eating outdoors,” Boses wrote to school staff.
The public comments from Boses to delay her children’s return to in-person learning stand as a notable exception to the school board’s previously stated agreement in which only the president, Kate Noble, speaks with the media.
Boses, who has three children in elementary school, explains her departure from this norm in an email to SFR: “I wanted to respond to you as a mother and nurse and engaged member of our community.”
The board’s siloed communication agreement drew the attention of transparency advocates this week.
In a letter sent to the school board on Tuesday, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government writes that “relying on the school board president to be the sole spokesperson for the entire body, is fundamentally at odds with the principles of transparency and accountability.”
The letter makes the case against limiting public discourse. “In choosing to remain silent, these board members are effectively muting their own constituencies. This is a disservice to the public and a dereliction of duties,” writes Shannon Kunkel, the executive director of NMFOG.
In a written response to NMFOG’s letter president Noble points out that the practice is a “norm,” not a policy of the board and “can be thrown out (as has happened at times) by any Board Member who wishes to speak to the press at any given moment.”
Noble does not advocate for the norm, but observes it given what she characterized as support from other board members. One particular advocate of the agreement, Noble explains, was the late board member Lorraine Price, who did not want the media to “poll the votes” of members ahead of decisions.
Noble says that the SFPS agreement to centralize communication with the media follows explicit guidance from the New Mexico School Board Association. She explains that in presentations on boardsmanship from NMSBA, the norm of communicating with the media through the president was advised.
Noble speculates that the agreement has been in effect for at least a decade and “it’s a practice for a lot of boards: for nonprofit boards for the NEA board,” she tells SFR. Noble claims that while school board members are elected officials, they don’t have individual jurisdiction over decisions, rather the board has power as a unit.
“There’s a lot of foundational sense in operating this way for the district,” Noble tells SFR.
Kunkel, NMFOG’s executive director, tells SFR that even though the board agreement may not be an official procedure, “We would argue it is a policy. It’s a high level statement that’s uniform across the organization. So we think that it probably is appropriate to deem it a policy.”
Noble’s response to NMFOG’s letter raised more questions, Kunkel says—largely centering around the origins of this norm. “Was there an open meeting and a discussion among the school board to determine that this was going to be their policy or norm?” Kunkel asks. “And if so, are there minutes available regarding that discussion? Was the public given the opportunity to provide input?”
The governmental transparency group has other questions, Kunkel says, for the state’s school board association as to why the group provides guidance to elected officials across New Mexico to limit the access of public communication.
Joe Guillen, the executive director of NMSBA, tells SFR that about 75% of districts in the state have a similar approach when communicating with the media, but it isn’t the official endorsement of the association.
Guillen explains NMSBA offers training seminars for school boards and in those law firms hired by the association to educate boards about the Open Meetings Act advise school districts to take this approach when communicating with the media.
Though not in all instances, says Guillen. “On other divisive issues, like say school closure or that kind of thing, I think it is important that the constituents know where particular board members stand on that,” he tells SFR.
As of Tuesday all schools in the Santa Fe district providing in-person learning before winter break invited students back into classrooms. The district did not release guidance for families, like Boses’, who would prefer not to return to schooling in person, with district spokesman Cody Dynarski posting on the SFPS website’s messaging system, “REMINDER: All students return to school on Tuesday, January 4th.”