Legal experts analyze CCSD superintendent removal

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Central Consolidated School District Board of Education appears to have remedied most of the legal concerns regarding its actions to discharge former Superintendent Don Levinski. A complaint filed with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office by two dissenting board members gives a glimpse into the board's decision to remove Levinski.

Three CCSD board members voted on Aug. 24 to ratify actions taking during an Aug. 18 meeting to place Levinski on administrative leave as they started the discharge process and appointed former Supervisor of Schools Colleen Bowman as interim superintendent.

Following the Aug. 18 meeting, a CCSD representative and two board members raised concerns about the board's actions to remove the superintendent and appoint an interim superintendent. Board President Charlie Jones Jr. and board member Adam Begaye voted against Levinski's removal during the Aug. 18 meeting and filed a complaint Aug. 21 with the AG's Office alleging a violation of the state's open meetings act by board Vice President Ruthda Thomas, Secretary Christina J. Aspaas and board member Randy Manning.

Emails and phone calls from The Daily Times to Thomas, Aspaas and Manning seeking comment were not returned.

A letter to Jones from Paul Aguilar, the New Mexico Public Education Department deputy secretary of finance and operations, states the school board's action on Aug. 18 may have violated the state's open meetings act by not listing any personnel action on the meeting's agenda and not giving notice of possible personnel action prior to the vote to remove Levinski.

PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said the department has referred the matter to the AG's Office to review for a potential violation of the open meetings law.

Attorney Greg Williams, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government's board of directors, and attorney Marty Esquivel, former Albuquerque Public Schools board president, both said the CCSD board probably violated the state's open meetings act by not listing an item on the agenda to remove the superintendent and appoint an interim replacement.

But they said the board rectified its actions by holding another meeting within 15 days of the original meeting, giving that meeting proper public notice and listing on the agenda the actions called into question.

"If the school board decided removing the superintendent was appropriate but did it in an improper fashion, they should be able to take the action again, this time, doing it correctly so they carry out their function," Williams said.

Esquivel said when a board tries to take action on items not listed on the agenda, it offers no transparency on the board's actions to the public and gives no opportunity for public input or notice about its intentions.

"You have an expectation that the policy makers would take that action to the public," Esquivel said.

The board members did not provide any public discussion or information about why they removed Levinski and appointed Bowman during the Aug. 24 meeting.

Esquivel said in terms of good governance, the board should have provided a public statement or justification about removing the superintendent but is not legally required to do so.

He said the board is required to provide a statement as part of the discharge process, which also allows Levinski 30 days to request a due-process hearing if he believes the board didn't provide just cause in removing him.

Attempts by The Daily Times to reach Levinski were unsuccessful.

The Jones-Begaye complaint includes other allegations, as well.

The complaint states, "An email from board member Christina Aspaas to Superintendent Don Levinski and former CCSD board member Matthew Tso was recently brought to our attention that clearly shows that Christina Aspaas was extorting and blackmailing Superintendent Levinski to take illegal actions on behalf of her cronies and friends, including Colleen Bowman."

Numerous attempts by The Daily Times to reach Bowman for comment were not successful.

In an email sent by Begaye to Attorney General Hector Balderas, Begaye and Jones also accuse Aspaas of having "knowingly extorted and blackmailed Superintendent Don Levinski on behalf of Colleen Bowman."

Jones said the email in question, obtained by The Daily Times as part of the complaint, was provided to him anonymously.

In the email, Aspaas wrote to Levinski and Tso on Nov. 22 and said she would recommend that the board send a letter of reprimand to Levinski and place him on leave at a future meeting unless he agreed to her demands.

She also accuses him of causing "fear and intimidation within CCSD," and raises allegations that Levinski engaged in discrimination against and manipulation of personnel, with Aspaas specifying Navajo employees.

Aspaas then makes several demands of Levinski, stating, "Unlike the people you have mistreated, I will give you a way out of this."

Aspaas asks Levinski to reinstate Bowman to her previous position of supervisor of schools, make her a member of his cabinet, destroy any records of false/untrue performance reviews and provide a copy of Bowman's outstanding performance review to her and Bowman.

In an email reply sent on Nov. 24, Levinski says Bowman's position, title, salary and days have "remained the same." He follows by stating Bowman is a member of his cabinet, there are no false or untrue performance reviews, and no outstanding performance reviews.

In response to the allegations of discrimination, he states, "As far as Navajo people, even Navajo employees have to (be) held accountable. We recruit the best we can find but they have to perform."

Before giving his personal phone number to Aspaas, Levinski states in the email that Aspaas' demands are illegal.

"I guess fortunately for me, you were misinformed," Levinski says in the email. "I only wish you trusted me, as much as those who chose to misinform you."

As for the pending superintendent search, Jones said board members have only talked about it in passing, and no plans have been made.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.