by Bill Knowles
AGUILAR- During a regular meeting on April 29, the Aguilar School Board appointed two people to fill the empty seats that have been open since mid-March. On a vote of 3-1, Mae Navarette and Cynthia Vigil were appointed as RE-6 Aguilar School Board Members.
According to Janice Ramsey, a member of Concerned Citizens, the watchdog group following the Aguilar School Board, a recall effort by that group has been halted. Ramsey said the Aguilar Town Clerk told them they probably wouldn’t have the time to acquire enough signatures on the recall petitions, to have the signatures verified and to put the question to the ballot before elections in November. The group would have to raise over 120 signatures each to recall board president Erlinda Encinias, board secretary Marc Piano and board member Mary Vigil.
Voting for the candidates was conducted by secret paper ballot during the open public meeting and will not appear on the public record, either in the minutes or in a newspaper.
The issue of secret ballot voting at an open meeting was contested in Colorado in 2010. A lawsuit alleging that the city of Fort Morgan violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law (COML) by using secret ballots to decide on several appointments was dismissed by District Court Judge Douglas Vannoy.
According to a report filed in the Journal-Advocate, the local paper in Sterling, Colorado, in his dismissal Judge Vannoy stated, “I conclude that the issue is a matter of local concern and, therefore, the City Charter provision, as applied by the City Council, prevails over the COML.”
According to the Journal-Advocate report, Vannoy said the facts did not demonstrate the existence of a conflict between the city charter and the COML. “The open meetings law contains no provision that bears directly on the use of ballots to appoint local officials,” he added. “The purpose of the COML is to ensure public access to meetings at which public business is conducted,” the judge said. “The COML does not direct public bodies to conduct business in a specific manner.”
The Aguilar board also accepted two letters of interest for the open seats after the posted deadline in the legal notice. According to Ramsey, two of the five letters were received Tuesday April 26, a day after the announced deadline of Monday April 25 in the legal publication seeking letters for the positions. The full board of education saw the letters for the first time on April 29.
Three of the five letters had been in possession of the board for at least two weeks prior to April 25. Mae Navarette and Cynthia Vigil were the two who sent in late letters.
Dave Pagnotta, one of the three candidates who had sent in his letter of interest early, had previously served on the Aguilar School Board for 25 years either as a member or a president of the board. The board refused to consider him for one of the empty seats.
“They did a couple of things during the meeting that shouldn’t have been done. First it is illegal under Colorado Statutes to accept any applications for these seats after the deadline has passed. The reason they did this was to load the school board in their favor.” Pagnotta said.
“The interview of the candidates was shallow,” Ramsey said. “The board was asking the candidates how they felt about the future of education in Aguilar or how they felt about teachers. There was nothing about current policy or policy making. And the board refused to allow anyone in the audience to ask the candidates a question.” They didn’t interview Mr. Pagnotta.
Board President Erlinda Encinias asked Navarette where she thought the Aguilar schools should be in terms of education. Navarette said she thought the schools should be better than they are now. “The kids should be learning twice as much as they do at bigger schools, because of the smaller class sizes and the learning environment they have,” Navarette said.
With the appointment of two new board members, several parents indicated that they would probably pull their children out of Aguilar School and send them to Trinidad next school year. Along with the 20 students that have left the school so far, the additional seven students that may be leaving would drop the enrollment by 13 percent next year. And for a small rural school looking at a $163,000 budget cut for the 2011-2012 school year, a declining enrollment would further exacerbate a shrinking budget.