Diane Denish

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    10/25/21
Don’t nationalize school board elections
By Diane Denish

Corner to Corner
            Across New Mexico school board elections are in progress. Absentee and early voting are underway and Election Day is around the corner. And for the second time in state history school board elections are being held in combination with other non-partisan elections in most communities. 
            Beginning in 1912 when the state Constitution was drafted until 1969 school board elections were held at different times from other elections. Why?  Because women were eligible voters in school board elections but still couldn’t vote in general elections. In 1920 the 19th Amendment passed, securing the right to vote for women. Nevertheless, the provision to have separate school board elections remained in New Mexico.
            Thanks to retired Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, the late Rep. Jim Smith, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, D-Albuquerque, that provision changed. In 2019 they authored and passed HB 98, the Local Election Act. HB 98 changed the law to allow nonpartisan elections such as mayor, council, school board, and conservancy districts to be held at the same time in uneven years. All partisan elections, such as U. S. Senate, governor, attorney general and others would be held in the even years.  
            These changes in HB 98, combining school board elections with mayoral races, city council races and local bond issues, have resulted in an increase in the number of votes cast in school board races. In 2019 when the bill was in effect for the first time, turnout for school board elections went from less than 10% to nearly 20% average statewide.
            Something else is different this year. School board elections around the country and in New Mexico are being nationalized. 
            This year some candidates are running on sound bites that we hear in the national political dialogue. They make promises to defy mask and vaccine requirements or drop parts of history that make kids or parents uncomfortable. Some candidates openly ignore medical and scientific recommendations on how to keep kids safe and healthy.
            In some places we have watched supporters or opponents of incumbents take on mob-like characteristics, shouting down meetings, using profanity, stalking board members. Mobs become a weapon of hate, anger and, occasionally, violence. 
            Let’s not let that happen in New Mexico. Let’s elect school board candidates who know the community and understand the job of a school board member. That job is hiring and firing the superintendent, creating and overseeing the budget, and passing smart policy to govern the district.  Let’s support candidates who understand that a district focused on kids in the classrooms and their emotional and social wellbeing is a district that builds a productive workforce.
            Who are the candidates in your district who are thinking ahead and not in the heated moment of national discourse? Which candidates for this volunteer job are thinking about curriculum that supplies learning tools and skills training to align to the jobs of the future? What candidates will vote to improve the pre-k programs for three- and four-year-old kids so they get the best possible start? And who are the candidates talking about school district policies that will keep and recruit teachers? 
            And while considering our choices, we should remember those running for school board positions are our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. School board members, although elected by the public, are unpaid volunteers. They give us time and energy away from their work and families. If chosen, they deserve respectful input, support or opposition -- not mob tactics.
            It’s taken over 100 years to make sure every qualified person can vote in school board elections and to devise a system to attract more voters. Now the decision belongs to voters. If you haven’t voted early, go vote on Nov. 2. Don’t nationalize, localize.  

© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES      10/11/21
Leaders and followers in methane solutions
By Diane Denish

Corner to Corner
          “In the west mid dark oil derricks, friendly flares to view.”
          So began the Hobbs High School Song when I attended. Those words call up the image of the oil camp lit up by a flare. It signaled the entrance to Hobbs on the Carlsbad highway. Little did we know then that flares, venting and leaks from drilling were creating dangerous levels of air pollutants and threatening public health, wildlife and our big blue skies. 
          This past week concluded 10 days of daily eight-hour hearings before the state Environment Improvement Board. The subject: proposed regulations needed to control harmful pollution by oil and gas drilling. The state Environment Department (NMED) proposed new rules for regulating VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and methane. The Environment Improvement Board gets to decide what is included or excluded.
          Today 62% of all VOCs and methane emissions are produced by the oil and gas industry. Regulating these toxic, deadly chemicals, along with methane emitted by leaks, vents and flares is within reach. That is NMED’s job – to protect communities from harmful, even toxic gases – in our air and water.
          Independent oil producers, big corporate producers, individuals, and environmental coalitions testified throughout the hearings. From the testimony, rays of hope emerged to face the devastating impacts of VOCs and methane and the invisible enemy it has become for communities. 
          One source of  hope is Occidental Petroleum, which is the second largest producer in the Permian Basin and one of the largest producers in New Mexico. Oxy showed true leadership in joining with environmental and community groups in a call for stronger NMED rules. 
          Some of the more powerful testimony came from members of Interfaith Power and Light. One  member, Kayley Shoup, an organizer of Citizens Caring for Our Future in Carlsbad, testified in strong support of the new regulations. 
          Like me, Kayley grew up in the Permian Basin, and she knows and loves her hometown. I can only imagine the courage it took to step up and talk about the dangers of an industry in which her friends and neighbors work. But her goal is to secure the future of her community – improve health outcomes for her friends and neighbors, create jobs through innovative solutions to the problem, and protect the unique and beautiful surroundings in southeastern New Mexico. Amen!
          This is a challenge in northwestern New Mexico as well. In the San Juan Basin (where I lived for seven years) leaky gas wells and intentional venting have created the largest methane hotspot in North America. Methane is invisible and dangerous. Hilcorp, a Houston- based private company and the largest gas producer in New Mexico is the number one methane polluter in the entire country. Instead of stepping up to lead like Oxy, Hilcorp’s out-of-state attorneys and local lobbyists continued to use false data about low pollution levels and manufactured safety concerns related to monitoring wells and completion techniques. 
          There were multiple calls for the Environmental Improvement Board and NMED to adopt regulations that mirror those in Colorado. Colorado has successfully implemented strong well completion rules (completions are a massive source of the deadly chemicals) with no industry objections. Direct expert testimony verified that completion rules are safe, and methane could be captured and sold to help mitigate any costs incurred.
          Therein lies the key to industry support for stronger and more effective rules and monitoring – money. Convince operators, large and small, that there is something in it for them. Let’s stop trying to persuade them with the egalitarian notion that they will protect the community, drive down cancer and asthma rates, regenerate wildlife, and fight climate change.
          Just remind them that recapturing rather than leaking and venting of these harmful gasses, can put money in their pockets – and once they pay for the cost of controls and effective monitoring – it’s all theirs. 

State creates early childhood and daycare system to meet modern workforce needs
By Diane Denish

Corner to Corner
            One of my sweetest memories as a little girl was going to Mrs. Pennington’s Playschool in Hobbs. Even though it is among my earliest memories, I can still summon up the feeling of    excitement. Going to play with other children, coloring, digging in the dirt, singing in a circle!  Mrs. Pennington’s was more like Mother’s Day out for my mom (with three kids under age five) and others in a time when only about 32% of women were participants in the labor force. Mrs. Pennington loved us and loved what she was doing – all the while getting paid for it.
            This was an affordable luxury for my mom and a way to catch her breath.
            Today, quality childcare is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. Until the pandemic, women made up more than 52% of the work force. In the last 70 years women have not only entered the workforce in greater numbers but have expanded their presence in almost every profession and occupation. Two-income families have increased dramatically, leading to an increased need for full-time childcare.
            With the changes, increased demand, and fewer options, childcare has become expensive and unaffordable. And for years, childcare has been undervalued. In New Mexico we have a chance to remedy this and pay attention to the most critical time in kids’ lives – the first five years.  
            Thanks to the Legislature, the American Rescue package, and the proposed passage of the Reconciliation Act, we can focus on necessary elements to improve childcare and early education. That includes quality and affordability for childcare, additional money for pre-K, expanded workforce training, and professional development and expansion of home visiting for families with young children.
            Addressing these issues will strengthen and grow the mixed-delivery model of public and private centers that works for New Mexico. We have the tools to build what we need.     
            In 2019 the Legislature created the Early Education and Care Department with a small $1 million appropriation for startup. Money could be focused on services to jumpstart kids and families, and to prepare them for a successful educational journey. Prevention and preparation versus intervention in later years was the goal.
            In 2020 Rep. Doreen Gallegos,(D-Las Cruces, spearheaded and passed with support of Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the establishment of the Early Education Trust Fund with a $300 million appropriation. According to Legislative Finance Committee projections, the fund will grow to $1.5 billion over the next two years and $2.3 billion or more in five years.
            Add to that the $435 million received from the American Rescue package, and the additional money in the Build Back Better reconciliation package – we have the money. 
            What will this money do? Where will it go?   
            No family will spend more than 7% of their income on childcare, making it affordable. Money for training the workforce will go to New Mexico’s community colleges and four-year universities offering associates and four-year degrees. Innovative Projects like the Wonder School that offer back-office support, technical and business support, will be more readily available to the 600-plus childcare centers, family group homes, and other providers. Money for bricks and mortar to build capacity is there too.
            And most importantly, money will be available to create pay equity across the public-private system of care, helping to recruit the 6,000 additional workers.  
            We can recruit people like Mrs. Pennington who want to give kids the love, quality care, early learning skills, and a safe place – if they can earn good wages. I believe there are lots of eager Mrs. Penningtons out there watching and waiting for it to happen.

​© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    9/13/21
Broadband improvements can't come too soon
By Diane Denish

Corner to Corner
            Do you know the 1-800 number of your internet provider by heart?  Can you recite the automated message ("It looks like there is an outage in your area") in your sleep? Have you  spent hours on the phone with technical assistance representatives from Indonesia, Jamaica, or other locations, sometimes being placed on what’s known as “a brief hold” that lasts for 20 to 30 minutes?
            If you answered yes, chances are you live somewhere in rural New Mexico. A place where high-speed internet is a dream, and most just hope for any kind of internet service on a good day. 
            In my experience in Sierra County, it’s always a roll of the dice if our provider, Windstream/Kinetic, will be available at all. On bad days you can’t even call 911 because Windstream also provides landline service. And the lack of reliable internet service made remote learning almost impossible for some kids who lived in rural Sierra County during the pandemic. 
            It all began three months ago when a modem in our getaway house in Hillsboro died after 10 years. This prevented me from kicking back and doing things such as researching and writing for this column. After five hours of phone time and two non-working modems supplied by Windstream that didn’t work, I resorted to eBay. I bought a used modem just like the one that died.  It worked. By then, Windstream had agreed to send a technician, local and knowledgeable, from T or C. He called me prior to departing and told me I had solved my problem with my eBay purchase, for now. 
            While pulling my hair out during this experience I thought about these questions: Can we promise rural communities economic development opportunities without high-speed internet?    Can location-based employment for those who want to live rural and work remotely succeed without reliable connectivity? Can internet reliability be addressed by out-of-state companies with little knowledge of New Mexico?
            Not a chance.  
            As of 2010 New Mexico had 100 incorporated cities, town and villages. (Hillsboro is not incorporated.) Only 19 had populations of 10,000 or more, and 35 had fewer than 1,000 people. Everything else falls somewhere in between, and nothing will change much in the 2020 census. Rural NM is resilient, but reliable connectivity for small communities is a key to survival.
            Thanks to the pandemic, the need for remote work for many, remote school for kids, remote medical advice, remote therapies, and remote shopping, broadband issues grew from urgent to acute. Broadband legislation, some presented earlier, became a priority.
            Two legislators, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, joined to pass SB 93 and HB 10. SB 93 creates the Office of Broadband Access, and HB 10 establishes an infrastructure grant funding mechanism and oversight for the $130 million allocated to the bill. Best news of all, the $130 million can be leveraged with federal FCC funds and other money in the current infrastructure bill to create close to $1 billion in funding. Added benefits in SB 93 are technical assistance and design and implementation guidance. 
            Don’t get me wrong. A few utilities in New Mexico like Kit Carson Electric Co-Op have been modeling fiberoptic network buildout and better broadband connectivity for years -- a great example of what it means to have local companies doing local work creating local jobs.
            But there needs to be more, and these new tools and money can expand broadband to help prepare rural communities for the new era of remote work and learning. I’m optimistic, but in the meantime, I’ll keep that 1-800 number handy.

​© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   8/30/21
Vaccine, mask protests have consequences
By Diane Denish

Corner to Corner
             As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, the governor’s mask mandate for schools has caused a loud and probably unnecessary dust up.
            In Floyd (population 133), located in Roosevelt County, which has the lowest vaccination rates in New Mexico, the Floyd School Board twice voted not to comply with the governor’s statewide mask mandate for public schools. The board fired their superintendent when he refused to comply with the board’s decision because it would violate the law.
            The state Public Education Department (PED) took over the school district, suspended the board, reinstated the superintendent, and appointed former Las Cruces superintendent Stan Rounds as a one-man school board. PED has since filed a lawsuit asking the court to validate its actions.
             Sound like a complicated process? That’s because it is, and it’s about to get more so.
            An amended public health order, which took effect August 20, requires all school workers, paid and unpaid, to provide proof of vaccination and, if unwilling, provide weekly negative COVID tests. In addition, unvaccinated school workers must be always masked unless they provide instruction by a doctor directing otherwise.
            While Floyd’s defiance has been more public, a variety of other protests have been reported in Lea, Eddy, and Chaves counties – perhaps in Curry as well, where students have enrolled in Texas schools to avoid remote learning, mask and vaccination requirements. In the private and public sectors folks threaten to quit their jobs rather than meet their employers’ or the state’s mandatory mask and vaccination requirements.  
            All of this has consequences.   
            COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing. Local schools lose money every time a family decides to enroll their kids across the state line. Hospitals are at capacity, healthcare workers are exhausted, our neighbors are dying, and others will have long-term health problems.
            In New Mexico, as elsewhere, everyone has someone to blame -- kids who go to school in Texas where no protections are in place and bring the virus back; tourists from Texas in Santa Fe, Taos, Elephant Butte and other spots who don’t have to comply with any safeguards at home and refuse to do so here; immigrants crossing the border (processing centers have lower positive rates than most counties); and local elected leaders’ failure to encourage face coverings, vaccinations or other safeguards.
            Add to that, it’s county fair time!
            Recently the largest surge of cases in Lea County came after the fair when positive cases began consistently topping 100 per day to over 200 on some days.   While Lea County has always taken pride in having the state’s largest county fair where everyone can have a good time, this year that comes with a new burden – the spread of COVID-19. 
            So yes, there is plenty of finger pointing going on. Not to mention the many excuses we hear about why folks won’t wear masks or get vaccinated. 
            Yes, it’s complicated. Or is it? Perhaps we are just making excuses for not adhering to the limited restrictions that have challenged and exhausted us and at the same time have proven to work. Is it as complicated as some like to make it – board vs. state, superintendent vs. board, Republicans vs. Democrat, proven data vs. misinformation?  I think not.
            The chain of events in Floyd underscores this:  It’s only as complicated as we make it. The truth is simple and now almost indisputable. Stopping COVID-19 means getting vaccinated and wearing masks until infections are significantly reduced or negligible. Stopping COVID-19 is on all of us. It’s time to stop the blame and excuses and do your part.