One day before an emergency school board meeting that could decide his fate with Albuquerque Public Schools, Superintendent Luis Valentino is speaking with media about the controversy that has rocked the school district this month.
New Mexico Political Report spoke with Valentino midday Wednesday about the controversial text message that started it all, the hire of a deputy now in jail in Denver for breaking his pretrial conditions for charges against him of sexual assault of a child and what exactly Valentino’s potential future with Albuquerque Public Schools would look like.
Here is Valentino addressing the scandal in his own words, starting with the first dispute, which involved APS Chief Financial Officer Don Moya’s opposition to an audit of the school district’s IT systems.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
New Mexico Political Report: Why does the IT systems need an audit?
Luis Valentino: it wasn’t just about that system. As a new superintendent coming in, the recommendation always is to audit the place you’re going so that you can find out where you are, where the system is, identify problems and begin to move it forward. The conversation I had with my leadership team when I first arrived was all about [how] we really need to look at every single department closely. I was starting with [the IT] department and Human Resources, because they’re the two more important ones. A lot of money goes through there. A lot of systems are built into the IT department including payroll and that sort of thing. So it was for me to learn and to begin to ask questions about what’s working and what’s not working. That’s how this whole [request for proposal] discussion started.
When you announced in May that Jason Martinez was coming to the district, was it specifically for the deputy superintendent job that he later got?
He was going to come in [at] that role. There was no other role for him. He was coming in specifically to address a need that I began to realize when—as part of the interview process but also in talking to board members and the staff what the expectations were—what the scope of work was. I—having known Jason from a leadership academy that we participated in, and what his academic interests and leadership work had been—that he would be a good fit. So he came in specifically to do the instruction side of the work.
We were both part of a leadership academy that ran for an entire year. And so we met across the country. There were 17 of us. And we met every month in different parts of the country. One of the stops was here in New Mexico. And we were learning about the superintendency, as we were all preparing to get to that place in our careers at some point.
Did you have conversations with Don Moya about offering him the same job?
No, not the same job. Because Don Moya is on the finance side. He’s not a teacher or educator. Jason is. And so the conversation with Don was because—also realizing the scope of my work and the magnitude that a lot of my work was going to be out there in the community—talking to people, groups, interviews. All of those things would require that there be someone back here to do the day-to-day work that we are planning. What’s the strategy implementation, and that sort of thing. And so, I had talked to Don about the fact that Jason was coming in to do this work. And then I was looking to fill another side so that I could have a deputy for instruction—which a district of this size would usually have three of them—and a deputy for operations, finance and policy. So, I had talked to him because people had said he had a lot of experience working in PED, working here—he had a lot of knowledge of finance.
His lawsuit says you had a meeting with Hanna Skandera June 12 about all of this. Did that occur?
It had nothing to do with this. I had a meeting with the governor [and] Hanna Skandera because Brad Winter introduced me to them. We held a meeting, most definitely. And it was a way for me to meet them because [Winter] was on his way out, I was on my way in. It was just a handing off.
There’s been questions people have raised about your work in California. Did you ever come in contact with Hanna when you were there, she was there?
No. Neither when I was in Los Angeles or San Francisco did I ever interact with her.
Are you aware of any times when Jason Martinez had contact with APS students while he was here? Did he visit schools or anything like that?
He went to a school once, but a group of us went. And when we arrived we were waiting for some food to arrive so that we could give it to a class. He left [the school]. So he didn’t even walk in with us into the classroom. He went to the campus, we were all together. And then he left. Because it took a long time for stuff to materialize. So he left. He came back to the office because he had a meeting.
As far as Jason Martinez’ missing background check and his prior arrest records, who do you think should be held responsible for that?
All of us. Because I think there’s responsibility on a number of levels. One is when he came in. I first found out that he had not done his background check [on] July 15. I went to speak with Jason and I said, “You need to take care of this immediately.” He said, “I’m on it, I’ll take care of it.” I returned to my work doing the work of the superintendent. Then Aug. 19 I heard about it again for the second time. That was the same day he tendered his resignation. So, in speaking with the chief of HR, I said, “Just so you know, here’s his letter, it goes in his file.” She goes, “Oh, well he never even completed his background check.” That’s how I found out the second time. In that is that space where I’ll take that responsibility, because I ask myself, “How much do I track the [background check] process of employees?”But the problem is, we have 13,000 employees, and a lot of people come in. Especially during that period, a lot of new teachers being processed [and] administrators. So to what degree do I drill down and get into that level of granularity? So that’s where I’m wondering what I could have done differently. The second one is that the system itself really needs a fix, because that should never have happened. Because if you have a system that says—and we have state statute, we have regulation and we have district policy—all designed to ensure that.
As a parent, the last thing I would want is to have someone who hasn’t cleared. But several things come into play. One is that we have a state regulation that flexes up to 90 days. And then we have us either following that or being more rigorous with our policy that says you cannot start unless you have a background check. So you have that space. So what we need to do is put a fix. That’s why I welcome the attorney general that is working with us to begin to address that. But also I think at the state level, we really need to say, we need to plug the hole in that. Because it can continue to be a problem, not only for Albuquerque, but across the state if we don’t address that.
Part of the leaked text message has you asking Skandera if she had “any ideas.” Can you explain that?
The concern was about the bond that we have, and just the finance department. It’s huge—a billion dollars come through here every year. And so I can’t take lightly removing someone and then figuring out what do I do next. There was dual purpose for that text. One is to get help answering that question, but the first one was, the first part of that text really dealt with a requirement [that] I have to notify the secretary of education if an administrator on contract is going on disciplinary action that may lead to a serious consequence, she has to be informed. Because she has to approve it. And that had happened here before. That’s how I knew what I had to do. So I needed to let her know, because not only does she need to approve it, but the judge needs to approve it.
If you stay on, how can the parents and community members calling for your resignation trust you again?
Let’s put my mistake into perspective. It was a bad hire. No question. No denying. I take full responsibility for that. I made a bad hire. I trusted someone who I thought was going to come in and actually help me move the agenda forward. That I take full responsibility for. So the question is, do I get fired because I made that bad hire? Am I also taking responsibility for the system not checking itself to make sure that Jason never walked through the door? Am I taking responsibility for that too? From day one, I’ve said we really need to revisit every single system because some of them needed a lot of work. HR was one. That’s why I wanted audits coming in the door. I think I was here one week before I realized that we needed to do that. If we had begun audits in HR, it probably would have gotten caught sooner. Because one of the things we were going to be looking at is not only our recruitment in hiring policy, but our processing of employees. For a lot of reasons. Not specifically because of that, but other reasons. That’s a systemic problem. So that’s the question.
The other one we really need to look at, how do we all work together to ensure that we establish the right policies to ensure that what we want to accomplish we accomplish because we have the right procedures. So, number 1, I do not believe I should resign in the context of what I am sharing with you. I believe that the board still has some faith in me that I can still do the work here and so I’m not even thinking beyond Thursday in terms of leaving. I believe I will be here. My heart tells me that.
There’s people saying this text made it look like you are cozy with Skandera.
And it did. And I’m shocked that the connection would be made so quickly. Part of it is not understanding politics in New Mexico. Had that happened in California, that conclusion would not have been drawn that way. They would have blamed a lot of other things, but not that. And a lot of it is I’m still trying to understand the division that exists between Republicans and Democrats. Because I met with legislators on both sides and they both have concerns about the other side. And they speak openly about that concern. And inside of that is the governor’s positions on education, the secretary’s positions on education. And so any conversation that I would have I assume would bring question to why are you having that conversation with someone whom we don’t trust? Well, the fact of the matter, unlike what’s been said, there will be a different governor in three years. I don’t have the luxury of three years. I have to work with who I have right now, who is in leadership, who is here as staff, because that’s who’s going to help us and help me move the work forward. So, my politics, anyone knows them when they walk through the door [he points to a framed Obama campaign poster in his office]. That’s my politics. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, because for me my focus is on kids. So to me, saying that I’m aligning with the secretary, governor—to me that’s politics. I don’t play that. I was told when I came in that I really need to collaborate with PED and with Santa Fe. Whatever that meant at the time, I didn’t know. I know now. And what it basically means [is] that any policy coming down from them, we have to look [at] with some scrutiny, because of the history that exists. So my job is to make sure that what comes to us is actually in the best interest of kids. Sometimes I agree with the secretary. I disagree a lot with below-the-line funding, the PARCC assessment [and] teacher evaluations.
Have you had any discussions other than this regarding matters of personnel with her or PED?
No. The closest thing was that [text message].
Update: This piece was updated for clarification in several areas.