August 28, 2015

Another controversial APS hire raises question of nepotism

Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent Luis Valentino. Photo courtesy APS website

One of Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Luis Valentino’s most controversial administrative hires—besides his embattled former deputy superintendent—is Gabriella Duran-Blakey.

Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent Luis Valentino. Photo courtesy APS website

Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent Luis Valentino. Photo courtesy APS website

Questions are being raised about whether the hire of Duran-Blakey, who is the daughter of Albuquerque school board President Don Duran, violates a state law that prohibits nepotism in schools. Valentino brought Duran-Blakey on in late June as the school district’s associate superintendent for middle schools.

Former board member Kathy Korte, who’s been outspoken throughout the scandals that have engulfed APS this month, said the hiring violates APS policies and school board ethics.

“What we’re looking at here is the daughter of a school board member who was hired,” Korte said. “She could have easily reapplied for a position, but to be appointed in an administrative position violates that policy because her dad is a board member.”

State law prevents nepotism hires in public schools, specifically stating that “a local superintendent shall not employ or approve the initial employment” of family members “of the local school board,” including their daughters.

Yet APS officials say all legal channels were cleared before bringing Duran-Blakey, who started working at APS in 1998, back on board.

Termination notice return to sender

Internal school district documents obtained by New Mexico Political Report show that APS drafted letters to Duran-Blakey this year twice notifying her that an extended leave of absence from the school district was set to expire.

Under the state Charter Act, school districts can allow employees to take leave to work at charter schools for up to three years. The same law states that an employee who gives the school district a “notice of return” will get employment preference from that school district.

One of the documents obtained is a letter sent to Duran-Blakey from APS Human Resources Department Specialist Jessica Rivera on March 16 of this year stated that her employment was effectively terminated.

“You did not respond to APS’s offer for re-employment by the March 1, 2015 deadline,” the letter reads. “Therefore, your employment with APS is terminated since you are no longer under contract.”

A stamp on the letter reads: “Please terminate this employee’s contract effective: 4/6/2015.”

Another letter sent two days later to Duran-Blakey by Human Resources Department Interim Assistant Superintendent Karen Rudys says that Duran-Blakey followed through with the termination.

“Your resignation has been accepted with an effective date of April 6, 2015 (end of workday),” Rudys writes.

Gabriella Duran-Blakey courtesy LinkedIn

Gabriella Duran-Blakey courtesy LinkedIn

When New Mexico Political Report provided these letters to APS, the district’s communication office responded by offering more documentation about Duran-Blakey’s return. One shows that APS got a return to sender message from the post office on the March 16 letter notifying Duran-Blakey of her termination.

“I don’t think she got it,” Rivera told New Mexico Political Report in an interview. “We got a return of receipt that she didn’t get the letter.”

Rivera said that the termination notice is “just a letter to get their attention.” As for the acceptance of the letter of resignation? APS says Duran-Blakey never sent one in the first place.

“That’s a standard letter that we send to all employees after we process their termination,” Rivera said of the letter accepting the resignation.

State law on charter school leave

Another document provided by APS shows that Duran-Blakey’s last approved charter leave extended to July 23 of this year. Duran-Blakey notified the school district that she was coming back in late June, before the expiration of leave, according to Rivera.

Though the state law allows it, APS decided to stop offering leave for employees to work at charter schools earlier this year. Duran-Blakey and others who were currently on leave would be permitted to return.

In 2012, APS granted Duran-Blakey charter leave to co-found Health Leadership High School, where she served as executive director through 2014. APS extended Duran Blakey’s charter leave twice, most recently on June 20, 2014.

Duran-Blakey didn’t spend all of her time away from APS at a charter school; she also worked at Santa Fe Public Schools for a year as an assistant superintendent. Yet while charter leave was written in state law for charter schools, APS argues that school district employees only need to be employed at a charter school during the time at which the charter leave is first granted.

APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said that the school district doesn’t have the capacity to check whether all employees coming back from charter leave are still working at charter schools.

“We just don’t have the manpower for that,” Chavez said.

As for whether Duran had anything to do with Valentino’s decision to hire Duran-Blakey, Chavez said “not as far as I know.”

“I would not be privy to those conversations,” Chavez said.

New Mexico Political Report also reached out Don Duran through the APS Board of Education Services. Duran did not return our request seeking comment.

Duran was elected to the school board in 2012.