LOVINGTON — In a bid for local control of pandemic restrictions, Lea County Commissioners unanimously supported the authority of elected school boards Thursday.
Recent New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) mandates threaten punitive actions for local officials’ failure to comply with state rules, such as those involving masking, vaccinating, social distancing and closures due to COVID-19 cases.
Commissioner Gary Eidson, a member of the Hobbs Board of Education, began the discussion, “Every year, it seems (the PED) takes more from school boards. People elected us to help run the school district along with the administrators. It’s frustrating that they don’t think we can do the job. We have good administrators in the school system. They know what they’re doing. They make good decisions.”
School superintendents Gene Strickland of Hobbs and LeAnne Gandy of Lovington both expressed appreciation to the commissioners for their support and offered descriptions of their own experiences.
“To have the county commission to come alongside the school boards and say we’re right there with you and we support you as well in making those decisions that are in the best interests of our students that are reflective of our current conditions in our community is the right way forward,” Strickland said.
State laws and the state constitution call for local school boards to make policy decisions, Strickland pointed out, because of the differences between the various communities.
“What happens here in Lea County is different than what happens in Aztec. Neither one is better than the other, however we do like what happens in Lea County much better,” Strickland said.
Gandy told the commissioners she has been in contact with the PED cabinet secretary multiple times recently because of local schools on the rapid response watch list.
“We have been advocating at every possible opportunity that the most important place for our kids to be is in school. It is the safest environment for our kids to be,” Gandy said.
The Lovington school superintendent pointed out the wisdom of keeping children in school rather than closing the school and allowing them to wander the community.
“If you quarantine a school, if you close down a school, those children aren’t able to stay home in isolation,” Gandy said. “They are in our grocery stores. They’re shopping with mom. They’re all over the place. So, it’s really important that we can contain that in our schools and not allow it to spread.”
School nurses provide a frontline element of defense not available in the local grocery store, with the nurse able to identify potential cases and take intervention steps immediately, including encouraging the family to get tested, Gandy said.
“We have hired additional nurses in Lovington to make sure we have a first line of defense against any spread of that virus,” Gandy continued. “To date, as far as we know, there has not been any spread in any of our schools that was contracted in our schools.”
The commissioners’ resolution noted the PED had threatened such punitive actions as “adverse licensure decisions against school district personnel, suspension of (school board) governance, and other enforcement measures …”
Those threats, without proper rulemaking or local input, according to the resolution, “are antithetical to the concepts of local control, federalism, and the rule of law and violate state statute, the New Mexico Administrative Code, and the Constitution of the State of New Mexico.”
On a more positive note, Strickland reminded the commissioners of a one-day closure of the Hobbs High School, the largest high school in the state, last week due to four incidents of rapid response. Two weeks of closure would have been expected under the state rules.
Instead, the PED accepted the local school district’s plan for disinfecting and other COVID-safe measures, allowing the reopening with only one day of closure.
“I will report that we did receive some positive news and some positive progress yesterday (Wednesday) evening in terms of school closures and what that may not look like going forward,” Strickland said. “The Public Education Dept. with the Department of Health are strongly considering doing away with closing the school with four rapid responses, which is significant. They are considering a percentage of that total population, which is a move in the right direction.”
In a previous interview, Strickland had pointed out the number four is an arbitrary number of rapid responses to COVID-19 cases used by the state to determine whether to shut down a business or school, and should be replaced with a population percentage. He noted a big difference between the population of the Hobbs High School and many smaller schools in the state.
Commissioner Eidson said he had received many telephone calls regarding the requirements for protective face coverings established for students returning to Hobbs schools.
Eidson concluded, “Hobbs schools don’t need the governor to tell us what we can do. Our superintendent and our administrators listen to the health care individuals in this community and we can make that decision ourselves. We didn’t need (Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham) telling us what to do. She did eventually, a week later, but we took that stance on our own. We took some flack for it, but I think it was a great decision.”
In response to Commissioner Pat Sims’ question regarding the number of students who left the school system due to closures in 2020, Strickland said, “Last year, that number was roughly around 300 students that moved to Texas, stretching from Odessa to Lubbock. I will also report that a number of those students have come back. We had a preliminary report yesterday (Wednesday) that indicates probably two thirds of those students have come back.”
Commissioner Jonathan Sena bemoaned the continued increase in power exercised by state and federal governments, taking authority away from local governments.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to see some good come out of this (resistance to non-local control) because we can lead ourselves better than Santa Fe or Washington,” Sena said.