Candidates for schools and city governments make the case for their election at public forum, Part 1

by Kathleen Sloan | October 21, 2021
7 min read
Source: League of Women Voters

Editor’s Note: This three-part series reports on which candidates showed up at Tuesday’s forum at the Albert J. Lyon Event Center and what they revealed about their qualifications and grasp of the challenges facing the bodies they seek to lead. Part 1 covers the candidates running to serve on the board of education of the Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools.

Three community members presided at a local government candidates forum held at Sierra County’s Albert J. Lyon Event Center on Oct. 19, two weeks before the general election on Nov. 2.

Village of Williamsburg resident and community event planner Denise Addie hosted, while Elephant Butte real estate agent and resident Cathy Vickers and Truth or Consequences real estate agent and resident Sid Bryant served as moderators of the candidates Q & A sessions.

The local governments included in the forum were the Truth or Consequences Municipal School Board, City of Truth or Consequences City Commission, Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees and the City of Elephant Butte City Council.

Addie said the candidate questions were generated by local residents from each jurisdiction. Candidates chose their questions from a hat, but since there were only three or four questions to choose from, nearly the same questions were answered by each candidate.

Each candidate was given one minute for an introductory statement and another minute to make a closing statement after the Q & A.


There are three seats open on the five-person board, all with four-year terms.

Anita Peterson, who is running against present school board member Christine La Font, did not attend the forum because she has contracted the COVID-19 virus, Addie told the Sun.

H. Brett Smith, the present school board chair and one of the principal owners of Smithco Engineering in Caballo, is running against Mark Brown Hedge, a retired Hot Springs High School biology teacher.

Wendy A. Kessinger and Jamie Elaine Sweeney are running for an open position on the board. Both have children enrolled in the school system.


Christine June La Font was appointed by her fellow school board members to fill Crystal Diamond’s seat, who resigned in November 2020 after winning a senate seat in the New Mexico Legislature.

La Font has three children enrolled in the school system. “It is important to keep kids in school, learning face to face,” she said, referring to COVID-19 restrictions that required virtual learning for many students last school year.

Dr. Channel Segura, now in her second year as school superintendent, is instituting “possible changes, which need time to bring to fruition,” La Font said, implying Segura should be retained.

Asked about her position on masking in the schools, La Font said the school board voted for a mask mandate about two months ago and indicated: “I would vote for it again.” The original policy decision, La Font said, required only those students and staff who were not vaccinated to wear masks. “But it didn’t work out,” La Font explained. “The differences were causing discontent. All are masked [now], including teachers and staff.” She took exception only to the top-down involvement of the state Public Education Department. “I would prefer that each school board would make the decision itself instead of having it mandated by the state,” La Font said.

Asked about the adequacy and importance of planning time for teachers, La Font said it is “imperatively important.” The school board recently voted to give students with C or better grades Fridays off for other educational pursuits. “Flex Fridays” frees up teachers, too. La Font said the extra time allows grade-to-grade curriculum coordination among teachers. Although students will spend less time in the classroom, La Font said: “With adequate training time we can ensure time in the classroom is quality time.”

During her closing, La Font said several constituents had told her they couldn’t vote in the school board election because they lived outside of T or C. Even though the school system is called Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools, La Font took pains to stress that the “entire county votes on the school board.”


School Board Chair Smith is seeking his third term on the board.

“I’m a lifelong resident of Sierra County,” he said during his introduction, adding that his family’s presence in the area dates back to the 1880s. “I love the people, the kids and the school system.”

In response to a question about his reason for seeking re-election, Smith said:

“Neat things are happening [within the school system] and I want to see that continue on.”

Asked “how should teachers teach racial injustice,” Smith responded: “If you are referring to critical race theory, I don’t think our system is set up to favor one race over another. People are coming across our borders like crazy. We teach everyone the same. Social injustice is in the past. No one has ever denied slavery and segregation, but to teach our kids we have a bad system is just wrong.”

His prime motivation for running, Smith said, is because he wants to “see great things for our kids. We have a poor community. I want to prepare them for life, to teach them the basics, not teach any kind of ideology. We’re not here for that.”

During his closing, Smith said: “I’m super proud of our school system. We have a great team. It’s daunting for teachers, but we’re trying to give them [flex] time to be more prepared.”


A retired educator with 29 years of experience as a biology teacher, Hedge said during his introduction: “I learned from six superintendents, 12 principals and countless students.” “It would be a shame,” he said, “to take all my knowledge and just retire.”

Hedge was asked to address the question of how racial injustice should be taught. As a biology teacher, he had “dealt with controversial subjects” such as climate change and evolution. “It is best,” he found, “to teach to the standard benchmarks. You have to put preferences aside and teach what the big bosses say.”

Asked about his primary motivation for running, Hedge reiterated: “I just want to keep being a part of [the school system.]”


Kessinger introduced herself as a parent with “two handsome young men in middle school,” and as a retired firefighter currently “running canines and cadaver dogs here.” She has written two books for younger and older children on the subject of “stranger danger.”

“I have taught my whole life and would like to become a school board member and continue that,” she said.

Asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the school system, Kessinger responded: “We have a fabulous superintendent. We were thrown into COVID with no play book. People did a fabulous job of pulling [a virtual instruction program] together.”

As for weaknesses, she said:  “I think communication with parents could be a little better.”

Asked if she agrees with the recently instituted year-round school schedule, Kessinger said, “Yes. I think it helps students get ready to go to work in the real world. [Summer vacation] is a strain on parents and daycare. I like structure. I raised my kids that way. It’s a hard kickstart for kids when they come off a long summer.”

During her closing, Kessinger said she wants to bring trade education back into the school system. “Plumbing, construction, even hair styling” could be taught. She pointed to a possible model in Colorado, where she said “20 counties have brought in trade schools.”


Sweeney said in her introduction that she has five children enrolled in the school district. She moved to the area in 1996, when she was in middle school. After serving in the military, she moved back here with her children. “This is the place that raised me,” she explained. “I wanted my kids to have the same upbringing.”

Asked to evaluate the school system’s strengths and weaknesses, Sweeney said: “I think the superintendent really ‘gets’ our students. She puts students first.”

“Communication,” Sweeney said, is a problem area. “I’m a vocal parent but a lot aren’t. Parents have stopped being involved. I feel we are not being listened to. It’s not completely the school’s fault. Parents need to be involved.”

Asked if she is in favor of the year-round school schedule, Sweeney said, “With five kids, I sure am.” After a long summer break, she noted: “Teachers are having to reteach the first six weeks of the year. [As a result], kids are falling behind.”

During her closing, Sweeney said, “I will put your children first. I’m not leaving [the area].”

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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