Leon Nall sat alone in the volunteer fire station, a working man’s cowboy hat topping his weathered face. The Floyd rancher and volunteer firefighter, 61, has seen a lot of changes in this rural village west of Portales.
The big farming operations have slowly taken over much of the land around the town, pushing out the little guy whose operations were already tough because of a lack of irrigation water in the past, he said.
But the town’s school, located in the center of the community of about 100 people, has been a constant — in good times and bad, through bounty and drought. Regardless of what was happening in the world around it, Floyd Municipal Schools pretty much embodied old-fashioned, small-town values, Nall said.
“It feels like home,” he said of the tiny village, which, he added, “is struggling to survive right now.”
Nall, until earlier this month the chairman of the school district’s board of education, said the 200-plus kids who attend Floyd’s schools — most coming from the farms and ranches far outside town — are taught by people who care about the students and nurtured by a town that makes sure the classroom matters.
It’s been that way, he added, since his dad, Mark, graduated from Floyd High in the early 1940s.
But as sometimes happens in a go-go-go world, change arrived in Floyd in an instant.
This month, the district and its school board became embroiled in a David-versus-Goliath struggle that punches many of New Mexico’s hot buttons — health, education, kids and government.
On Aug. 4, the state Public Education Department suspended Floyd’s school board after it voted 5-0 to make mask-wearing an option — not a requirement — in the district’s classrooms. The state has ruled masks must be worn by all elementary school students and secondary students who have not yet been vaccinated.
The education department also reinstated district Superintendent Damon Terry after the board placed him on administrative leave for refusing to join in the defiant action.
With the school board suspended, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart appointed Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders and a former superintendent in Las Cruces, to serve as an interim one-man school board for the district.
In Floyd and elsewhere, the decision was met with all the enthusiasm locals would give a prairie fire. Many have complained loudly the state is overstepping its bounds, stripping decision-making from the community that cares most about its kids.
Meanwhile, the state Public Education Department has filed a complaint in state District Court, asking the court to back its decision as legally valid.
As Nall sat in the empty fire station about a quarter-mile down the street from the school that houses Floyd’s kindergartners though high school seniors, he acknowledged he never thought he and his fellow board members would be in the middle of a legal firefight.
“Yeah, it’s lonely,” Nall said with a smile. “This isn’t fun to go through.”
Joined by fellow board member Charlsea Lee and local parent Destiny Gomez, Nall described the events leading up to the suspension, emphasizing board members were simply voting the way their constituents wanted.
“We’re being forced to make decisions against what we believe is best for students,” he said.
Gomez, who has two kids, ages 5 and 6, in the schools, said the argument may even go beyond state versus local control.
“It should be the parents’ choice,” she said, noting her youngest daughter gets “distracted” from learning while wearing a mask. “It’s our responsibility to keep our children’s safety in mind. That may be different for each parent, but it’s their responsibility for each child.”
Though coronavirus infections are spiking in New Mexico, particularly on the state’s east side, Gomez said she can bring her children to a local big-box store in nearby Clovis, where she works as an apartment complex manager, and see plenty of people not wearing masks.
“You see children without masks all the time,” she said.
Though Roosevelt County, where Floyd is located, has New Mexico’s lowest vaccination rate, Nall said the question of masking or being vaccinated should remain one each individual answers to his or her satisfaction.
He said if a store owner required him to wear a mask to enter, he would do so “if I need to go in there.” Otherwise, he said, he would frequent another store.
“This body, this temple of God that is sitting right here, is my property,” he said, referring to himself. “I’m a firm believer in private property rights. Whenever I cross into your property, I have to do what you say.”
Schools, he said, are “the state’s property. And who is the state? We are.”
The state doesn’t see it that way.
Cheering on both sides
The question of whether individual school districts or the Public Education Department should have the final say over how certain matters are administrated has popped up repeatedly in the past, regardless of whether the state’s governor was a Democrat or Republican.
Under former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, some local school boards argued they — not the state — were best suited to decide whether to give schools letter grades or come up with teacher evaluation systems.
Nationwide, some school districts in Republican-governed states are pushing back against mandates that children do not have to wear masks in schools — a story that runs contrary to the Floyd situation.
Former Santa Fe Public Schools’ board member Frank Montaño said that while boards should have “as much local autonomy as possible” in such matters, going against the state probably will lead to trouble.
“The state ultimately calls the shots,” he said. And school board members who undergo the required training to serve should know that, he added.
He said no school board should assume all the parents it represents are in agreement with its decision. Those parents may favor state control in some cases and local control in others.
“In Floyd, some parents are cheering on the school board. And some parents may be cheering on the state,” Montaño said.
He recalled with a laugh how, when the Santa Fe school board attempted to shut down Alvord Elementary School, parents who were against the idea rallied and drew Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, into the fray. Richardson ordered the education department to stop the action, which delayed but did not stop the closure.
“It really depends on what the situation is, whether you want local authority or state authority to do the deal for you,” he said.
In the case of Floyd, the Public Education Department is looking for the courts to back it up. In a complaint filed earlier this month with the First Judicial District Court, attorneys for the department asked for “permanent injunctive relief.” They want the court to declare the agency “acted legally when it suspended the Floyd School Board.”
Meanwhile, the board has hired a lawyer, Robert Aragon of Albuquerque. Efforts to reach Aragon for comment Friday were unsuccessful, but Nall said that based on his conversation with the lawyer, “the local school board has the authority to write policy of the schools in the state.”
While that case is filed specifically against the Floyd school district, it is tied to a larger lawsuit, still pending, in which a coalition of nearly 20 districts, including Floyd, allege Stewart overstepped his authority in imposing requirements for students to return to in-person learning in the public schools and when employees should get tested for COVID-19, among other guidelines.
In June, a judge denied the Public Education Department’s motion to dismiss the case.
Stewart is preparing to leave his position in about a week. Longtime educator and administrator Kurt Steinhaus, who retired in May as superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools, will replace him and contend with the ramifications of both cases.
In a radio interview Friday on local radio station KSWV, Steinhaus said the state wants to keep the Floyd students safe as the pandemic continues to play out. He said that under the former school board’s push for optional safety measures, they “would not be safe.”
He said the Floyd students are “learning, they’re happy and doing what they need to be [doing] to be safe in school.”
Meanwhile, Rounds said he would not be drawn into the “masks, no masks” debate.
“My personal feelings about this have to be set aside,” he said.
He said all the school’s students are adhering to the mask mandates set by the state.
Speaking to the issue of control, Rounds said, “Historically, there’s always a tension between state regulations and rules because they tend to be cut around one size fits all. That’s how the state process works. There’s always a tension between that and the differences in each district.”
He said he plans to soon hold a board meeting out of courtesy to the community. For now, he’s already making administrative decisions, signing off on documents to ensure everyone gets paid, planning for the annual audit of the school district and approving board minutes and district finances.
He said he doesn’t know how the situation with the previous board members, some of whom are up for reelection later this year, will play out. He said they could be reinstated if they back off their current stand.
Nall said that is unlikely.
“I’m stubborn,” he said. “Why should I vote for something that doesn’t help, something I know is doing harm to education? That’s not my duty.”
Lee, who like Nall said Floyd parents expressed unanimous support for the board’s stand, said she feels the same way.
“I took an oath to be an advocate for these children, to be a voice for parents,” she said.
She said that while she cannot predict what will happen next, “I hope something changes and we get our local control back.”