La Tierra Protest

Protestors calling for change at La Tierra.

Parents and students of La Tierra Montessori School of the Arts and Sciences, in Ohkay Owingeh, held their second protest of the school year on March 2. 

Interim Head Learner Patricia Herrera confronted protestors and members of the local media that afternoon, as they gathered in front of the school, stating that photos cannot be taken on tribal property.

The crowd of people made their way to highway 68 in front of the school to allow press to take photos, before returning to school grounds, where they walked around with handmade signs urging the school’s Governing Council President Isaac Casados to resign or be removed.

This most recent protest took place three months after the first. Also held on school property, the first gathering consisted of concerned school members asking for the school to bring back a teacher who had been placed on administrative leave. 

Tensions at La Tierra have steadily risen between the governing council and the parents, staff and students since this past summer, when former head learner Angela Feathers was replaced. Feathers was the head learner for the school during the 2021-2022 school year. 

The problems hit a turning point on Feb. 17, when the New Mexico Public Education Commission voted to send a notice of intent to revoke the charter of the school. The commission will hold a hearing within the next few weeks to decide the school’s fate. 

During a March 1 governing council meeting, the council voted to send a notice of violation of the open meetings act to Public Education Commission Chairman Alan Lee Brauer. Casados said the revocation of the school’s charter was not on the agenda. 

Brauer said the commission has been in contact with the governing council and that the hearing is still set to happen. 

“We don’t believe that we did that and our attorney is reviewing the complaint, as we would do with any kind of complaint,” he said. “We’ve been in correspondence with the school as well and provided them some more context in terms of the next steps that we’re going to be moving forward with in regard to the process of the revocation.”

If La Tierra’s charter is revoked, students will continue to attend the school for the rest of the school year, and the school would close the following school year, according to commissioners at their Feb. 17 meeting. 

This decision came after several meetings between the commission and the council, including one meeting in which the commissioners placed La Tierra on a corrective action plan for the numerous safety issues identified on school grounds by Poms & Associates, Albuquerque-based risk control and insurance agency. 

The report by the insurance agency includes several high-risk hazards in the school’s playground, such as rotten wood, a concrete pad flooring with insufficient padding on it and railroad ties in the play area that may not have been treated using a safe and acceptable method.

There were several other high-risk hazards reported in the school itself, such as exposed wiring, combustible materials stored near exits and a third-party contractor leasing space in a building on the campus. 

During the March 1 governing council meeting, parents and the council continued their arguments.

“I’ve been threatened. I’ve been yelled at. I’ve been cussed at. I have done everything that I can for these precious children. I love these kids and I really like that little school,” interim Head Learner Patricia Herrera said. 

Casados said there are ongoing investigations into Feathers – who currently teaches kindergarten at the school – and parent Mateo Peixinho.

“This board has uncovered vast violations of state law by the former head learner, including violations of the state nepotism clause, violations of the state procurement code, issues of quid pro quo, forged documents and other issues that have already or will be referred to the appropriate state agencies,” Casados said of Feathers during the meeting. 

The council voted to send an official complaint about Feathers to the state auditor pending overview of the letter by the council.

Feathers told the Rio Grande SUN that the school’s business manager has repeatedly told Casados nothing is wrong with her purchase orders. She added that the schools attorney was consulted for the hiring of her daughter – who was hired at the school because she had experience working at a Montessori school and has since retired. 

“When you play politics like this, the only people that suffer are the children,” Feathers said in a November interview with the SUN. “You know, we’re all adults. But look at them. I mean, to the point where children are protesting their own school.”

During the March 1 meeting, Casados said invoices, time sheets and communications between the school regarding Avanyu LLC were sent to the New Mexico Auditor’s office. 

Peixinho  – who is a co-owner of Avanyu LLC – said that his company has renovated the school and completed several other small projects on the property. He added that all documents and contracts were emailed to the governing council. 

“One could assume that because I’m organizing and helping raise concerns about the directions of the school, that it’s pretty vindictive to do this,” Peixinho said in an interview with the SUN. “The school gets audited all the time. Everything that [Avanyu LLC] has done has already been audited.”

A petition to recall Casados from the governing council currently has 39 parent signatures, which represents over 50 percent of the student body, according to Forrest Dudek.

Dudek’s three children attended the school before they were unenrolled sometime in January, without his knowledge, an act he views as retaliation for his role in the protests and petition. 

Casados accused parents of going to non-English speaking families and lying about what the petition was for during the March 1 meeting. 

The school’s Parent Teacher Association President John Myszko said that while it’s possible this occurred as an isolated incident, most, if not all, parents knew what the petition was for when they signed it. 

“I was in a room with around twenty people who all said, ‘We need to change who is president of the board,’” Myszko said. “I can say, as a witness, that those signatures were made under complete understanding of what we were doing. It wasn’t misrepresented.”

Several parents voiced complaints during the March 1 meeting and they demanded to know what is being done to better the school, why there are three empty seats on the governing council, how long the seats have been open, and what the plan is to save the schools charter.

The governing council currently has five members and three open seats. The council consists of President Casados, Vice President Brenda M. Atencio, Secretary Delisha Gordon-Brown, member Charlie Riddick and member Jacqueline Martinez-Vigil.

“Rest assured that this board is doing everything we can to keep this school open and use every option available to us to ensure that occurs,” Casados said. “However, we cannot expect any positive response if the same six or seven parents continually spread misinformation.”

Casados has voiced this complaint at previous New Mexico Public Education Commission meetings.

“To continue to argue that there are only six or seven parents that are causing all the problems at the school is like blaming the water for leaky pipes,” parent Melissa Salazar said during the public comments portion of the meeting. “You cannot blame people for complaining and pointing things out when there are obvious concerns about our children’s education, and I feel like that is exactly what you have done. That argument is over. That argument doesn’t work anymore.”

Salazar pointed out that approximately twenty parents were in attendance at that governing council meeting and said the only reason they hadn’t attended previous meetings was because no one had informed them of the ongoing issues at the school.

“People are furious with your leadership and we got more signatures than we need for you to leave,” she said, referring to the petition. 

Parents criticized the rest of the governing council as well, saying the council’s silence while Casados was continuously “rude” to the parents was just as bad.

“It’s gotten to the point where it doesn’t seem like it’s solvable,” parent Andres Juarez said of the problems the school faces. 

During the meeting, Casados limited public comment and the following was written on the meeting’s agenda: “Persons from the same group and having similar viewpoints are asked to select a spokesperson to speak on their behalf. Multiple and repetitive presentations of the same view will be discouraged and may be ruled out of order by the Governing Council chair.”

The public charter school was founded in 2012 by Prairie Boulmier and Roger Montoya. The school offers “integrated, multidimensional education,” according to the school’s website. The school is divided into two groups: the lower elementary that teaches first through third graders and the upper elementary that teaches fourth through sixth graders.

The American Montessori Society states, “As at all Montessori levels, the Elementary program is based on the belief that children learn best through movement and work with their hands, and provides cognitive, social, and emotional support to help them reach their full potential.”

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