North Star Elementary School counselor Kathleen Hager said a lot of her co-workers supported what she was doing but did not want to end up in hot water. “They were scared,” Hager said. “They didn’t want their names associated with what I was doing.”
Now Hager has received an award for what she did. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government named Hager a 2022 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award recipient for helping make Albuquerque Public Schools’ promotion process more transparent. The NMFOG webpage recognizing Hager for her efforts reads in part that:
“The recipient specifically used the law, the attorney general and advice from NMFOG to hold APS accountable. She has worked to enforce the public’s right to review records, even when the records were held in part by a private organization acting on the public entity’s behalf. Through Ms. Hager’s efforts, she was able to change how the state’s largest school district handled employee promotions and raises – changing a system that was onerous and detrimental to individual employees.”
False accusations and an unfair promotion system
Hager’s advocacy for change did not go without its difficulties. Not only was she accused of union busting, spreading false information and causing a ruckus at APS headquarters, but also telling outright lies to co-workers about the Albuquerque Teacher’s Federation promotion process for APS counselors, nurses, social workers and others who do not fall under the teacher category. An Aug. 3, 2021, article on the ATF website, which doesn’t specifically name Hager but insinuates the author is talking about her, starts off with, “If you tell a lie long enough it begins to take on its own li(e)fe.”
The “lie” she was accused of spreading was that the ATF was only releasing specific data about who was being promoted through the Career Pathway System portfolio program while withholding information about those who were denied promotions through the system. “The lies range from claims that ATF members receive passing scores while nonmembers fail all the way to accusations that ATF profits from the CPS portfolio program,” the ATF article reads.
Despite the accusations, Hager did not relent and continued to pursue the truth about how the union handled promotions for non-teacher APS employees. Hager said non-teachers were being denied promotions by the ATF through the system, not because of their performance or licensure status, but because they “failed to follow instructions” when applying for a promotion, often paying hundreds of dollars to the union only to be turned down by ATF reviewers acting as a “de facto human relations department for APS.” Meanwhile, new APS hires and non-teacher employees outside of APS were being fast-tracked for promotions.
“I am a very proud APS school counselor and member of both the NM and American School Counselor Associations,” Hager says in an email. “Part of the ethical code for these organizations requires me to support my fellow counselors and to inform appropriate officials of conditions that are disruptive or damaging to personnel. After trying to get promoted at APS and having to pay the Albuquerque Teachers Federation over $1,100 to participate in the promotion system, I realized that the current promotion system that included not only counselors but also nurses, social workers, PTs, OTs, interpreters, audiologists and mobility specialists violated this ethical code and caused harm to some of my peers.”
Hager said the CPS portfolio program began with good intentions in 2007 but because it was controlled by the ATF and not APS, many employees were being held back by the system. “I did not work for the ATF Union so why were they determining my promotions?” Hager asked. “It also put many loyal APS employees at a disadvantage to new hires who were able to bypass this system many times and automatically advance.”
Relentless pursuit of the truth
Hager said it took almost four years of advocacy to get APS to move from using the CPS promotion system to using a system based on performance and New Mexico state licensure levels. She reached out to APS administrators, the school board, the union and the New Mexico Public Education Department. She talked to peers, researched other school districts, reached out to the APS legal department, the UNM law school and the D.C. office of the American Federation of Teachers. Co-workers Lynne Antoun and Noel Blair joined in her efforts to propose an alternate promotion system, sharing it with APS leadership and school board members.
The idea was not well received by the ATF. An in email to Hager, ATF President Ellen Bernstein wrote, “Input for negotiations has always been solicited from members only. We are a member driven organization.” To try and soften the blow, Bernstein added, “Yes, ATF is the exclusive bargaining agent and we negotiate for all employees – all of whom benefit from having a union and a negotiated agreement, even those who do not pay dues.”
“A number of other co-workers reached out to support our efforts but were afraid to speak up due to fear of retribution,” Hager said. “We spoke at many APS school board meetings, arranged private meetings with a cohort of concerned APS counselors and three school board members, contacted the ATF of NM, NM Department of Labor, the media, some attorneys and the APS Ethical Advocate – all with no real progress toward change or even accurate numbers on the promotion system.”
On Jan. 13, 2020, the topic of changing the CPS system was banned from being discussed at the APS Counseling Leadership Committee by the ATF and APS Human Resources. Although her efforts didn’t seem to be going anywhere, Hager didn’t stop. She contacted NMFOG to help her find data on the promotion system and filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request. “APS responded that the ATF said they were not subject to IPRA – no data,” Hager said. “I tried multiple requests but received no data. I filed an IPRA request to see if there was a contract or MOU in which APS turned the power determining promotions over to the ATF. None could be found.”
She then filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office and reached out to the state auditor seeking a determination on the legality of the CPS system. The issue was placed on the agenda of the June 19, 2021, APS school board agenda “only to have the discussion taken behind closed doors over the objections of two board members.” Hager said some data on the promotion system was released at that time “but it was inaccurate and incomplete.”
The fight for transparency pays off
In September, the attorney general’s office issued a determination supporting Hager’s IPRA requests for data. Her efforts gathered momentum when several APS employee union members “pushed to have the ATF form a committee to look at the promotion system” while also advocating for change through the school board.
“In late April 2022, I received a letter from APS HR and the ATF that I was owed back pay for not being paid at APS by my NM School Counseling Licensure Level for the school year 2019-2020,” Hager said. On May 31 “it was announced that the ATF and APS had agreed to discontinue the CPS and pay according to performance and NM Licensure Level which the APS School Board approved.” That change went into effect with the APS school board ratifying the 2022-23 contract this past week.
“For those who want to see more transparency in government, don’t let fear or even retribution keep you from working for more transparency,” Hager said. “During our advocacy for change we encountered numerous very public and nasty retribution for our work. Yelled at during meetings, targeted with criticism, negative letters to school board members about us, accusations of unprofessional behavior sent to our co-workers along with an article published with many false accusations.
“We fear more may come our way as this change takes place. This spring I came so close to quitting my job. I had been working many long days trying to help students dealing with fallout from COVID when my school was called to have them check if I was physically at my job. There had been some sort of altercation at City Center and someone had identified me as the trouble maker,” Hager continued. “I had gone from being honored and respected as the APS Elementary School Counselor of the Year in 2019 to being accused of causing a ruckus at APS Headquarters.
“Thank goodness these negatives have been countered by my wonderful family, neighbors, friends and so many co-workers reaching out to encourage us along this four-year journey and thanking us for our work.”
Gratitude and kindness
Despite her struggle with the ATF, Hager also had a lot of good things to say about the union and their efforts to negotiate on behalf of APS employees. She said many friends and co-workers are union members and that they have worked hard to ensure all APS employees are treated fairly. She said co-workers and administrators at North Star have been very supportive and that without the combined efforts of her peers there may have never been a change in APS’ promotion system.
When asked why transparency in government is important, Hager answered, “Transparency is vital in our public entities as it promotes accountability and provides information as to how our taxpayer dollars are being utilized.”
As for receiving the 2022 Dixon award, Hager said, “I am stunned and beyond honored to be recognized by NMFOG. This amazing organization was invaluable to me in trying to understand what is classified as public records and how to navigate obtaining public records.”