Public Education Department to pay $14,000 in attorney fees

Judges gavel

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – A state district judge has ruled that the state Public Education Department must pay more than $14,000 in legal fees because it never responded to a public records request regarding teacher evaluations.

District Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling Wednesday granted most of the expenses claimed by the National Education Association’s attorneys. It also came after a judge in July fined the department $485 for violating open records law.

“If the Public Education Department had been as transparent as the governor claims her administration is, not one penny of legal fees would be required,” NEA-New Mexico President Betty Patterson said. “The judge’s ruling today affirms the law’s requirements that government documents should be accessible to all New Mexicans, and no agency is above the law.”

The NEA sought public records after the department claimed the previous system used to evaluate teachers gave 99 percent of teachers an “effective” rating. The department cited that figure in moving forward with a new teacher evaluation system, which rates teachers based on student test scores.

The current teacher evaluation system launched in 2013 and has received pushback from teachers and their unions who say it produces unfair evaluations, which can affect teacher licensing and pay.

The union did receive some documents from the department but none pertaining to their request for proof of the 99 percent figure that was used by Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the Public Education Department, said there was never an official report on the figure, so the department couldn’t respond to the request.

“It’s disappointing that a special interest group continues to defend an old, broken evaluation system that didn’t put New Mexico’s kids first,” McEntyre said. “(The Wednesday) ruling shows that these special interests would rather have more money spent in courtrooms than in our classrooms, where it belongs.”

The Public Education Department’s attorneys have filed a motion to consolidate the NEA case with a similar lawsuit filed by the American Federation of Teachers.

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