Floyd continues to defy state on mask mandates
Last updated 8/4/2021 at 4:37pm
FLOYD — The Floyd School Board didn't change its mind about implementing state-mandated COVID-19 mandates Monday night, and it doesn't plan on going anywhere after declining to follow them.
With an audience encouraging them to hold firm, board members declined to reverse their July 26 votes to make face coverings, social distancing and other COVID protocols optional at Floyd Municipal Schools.
Instead, the board unanimously voted to place Superintendent Damon Terry on paid administrative leave pending further legal advice and send a letter to the Public Education Department arguing it had no right to remove board members, as threatened by the department last week.
“I believe tonight is a victory for the state of New Mexico,” Board President Leon Nall told The News following the meeting, which included a 30-minute public comment period and an hour-long executive session to discuss the matter with counsel. He added the board's purpose is to support education for the district's students.
Nall did not elaborate on the reasons for placing Terry on leave, but said there was no disagreement between Terry and the board. When asked if the board put Terry on leave to protect him, Nall said yes.
Nall declined to identify the board's counsel, but other board members confirmed counsel was recently retained for the issues at hand.
Under Section 22-2-14 of New Mexico state statutes, provided by the board prior to the meeting, the PED “shall give written notification to a local school board, local superintendent and school principal, as applicable, of any failure to meet requirements by any part of the school district under control of the local school board.”
The board has 30 days from receipt of the written notice to comply with the requirements. Education Secretary Ryan Stewart sent that notice July 27.
Should the board fail to comply by Aug. 26, the statute allows the secretary, after consulting with the Public Education Commission, to suspend the board's authority and responsibility and have the PED act in lieu of the board. That process requires a public hearing at least five days prior to the final decision, and the board has the opportunity to appeal in district court. That process would fall to Kurt Steinhaus, who will take over as secretary Aug. 20. Current Secretary Ryan Stewart announced Thursday he planned to leave the post due to family health matters.
The PED provided the following statement from Stewart Tuesday afternoon in response to the meeting: "The Public Education Department leaders respect our school board members and the critical role they play. We sincerely believe they want the best for their students. In this instance, the state cannot permit a local board to knowingly put students, staff, and families in danger by ignoring scientific and medical guidelines designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 which has already claimed the lives of over 4,000 New Mexicans. It is not our wish to be combative or punitive in this process. We must take all actions necessary to ensure that the proper safety measures are in place to stop school-based spread of the virus."
About 100 audience members from Floyd and elsewhere encouraged board members to stand up against the PED, with many disputing the effectiveness of masks and recounting the emotional toll pandemic restrictions have caused to students, families and staff. Fewer than a dozen of those in attendance were wearing masks.
“I retired last year because of this,” said Donna Tivis, a former teacher with the district. “You're losing teachers. You're losing students to Texas. I love this state, but I don't love what's going on.”
Angie Smith of Portales likened the battle to David and Goliath, noting that “David wins; David always wins.”
Former Floyd Superintendent Paul Benoit said it would be important that Floyd did not stand alone on the matter, and other audience members encouraged the crowd to call the other 88 New Mexico school boards and encourage the same actions.
“I hope you stick to your decision,” said Josh Parkin of Clovis, who has been an outspoken critic of PED actions at Clovis Municipal Schools board meetings. “I hope that other schools notice and follow suit.”
Portales teacher Wade Fraze said he didn't plan to speak at the meeting, but said many educators are afraid to speak out under fear of retribution from the PED and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“You shouldn't be afraid of the Public Education Department,” Fraze said.
More than a dozen spoke at the meeting, all of them in support of the board's July 26 decisions.
“Hold firm; we've got this,” said Adam Burns. “They can't get rid of all of us.”