LAPS Board Member Christine Bernstein. Photo by Maire O’Neill/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos School Board member Christine Bernstein who was elected from District 3 (Aspen) has been placed in a difficult position for Board discussion of and voting on instruction options for the 2020-2021 school year due to a business she started in July to support teens during COVID. See story: https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/07/17/christine-bernstein-launches-new-business-real-support-to-help-teens-during-covid/
The Los Alamos Reporter contacted Bernstein Sunday to ask what she thought of concerns being raised by parents about the fact that she has had to recuse herself from all discussion and/or voting on the issue of what school will look like under COVID restrictions. Bernstein confirmed that she had received an opinion from legal counsel for LAPS that she should recuse herself from discussion/voting on the reopening of the schools.
At the July 14 Board meeting, president Ellen Ben-Naim asked Bernstein to talk about her recusal. Bernstein replied that she was going to recuse herself on any motions or votes pertaining to the opening of schools and the model the Board would choose “because of a potential or perceived conflict of interest “ related to the business she was starting up.
“As far as the discussion part goes, I want to remain listening to the discussion. I’m afraid to log off and not be able to get back on at this time, so I am going to turn off my mic and sit quietly and watch and listen,” she said.
The Los Alamos Reporter was contacted last week by several parents concerned that Bernstein’s inability to participate in discussion or voting meant that she was unable to represent them as she had been elected to do. In a district-wide survey for LAPS staff prepared and distributed by a group of parents, numerous concerns were raised about Bernstein’s status.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bernstein posted on social media that she needs to hear from her constituents.
“Because of the business I started to support teens and families with online education I had been advised to recuse myself from discussions and voted pertaining to online versus in-person educational decisions because it could be a perceived conflict of interest,” she said. “This does not sit well with me and I want to hear from my constituents. The school board has received multiple emails from teachers, parents, students on all sides of the issue. I am currently wading through all of them and tallying them up. I need to hear where you stand and what you want”
Bernstein asked for brief emails stating whether or not the sender wanted to “stay in full remote, go to hybrid, or any other option”.
Legal advice to the Board from attorney Linda Trujillo of Walsh Gallegos says that the Governmental Conduct Act is very clear that a public officer or employee is prohibited from participation in an “official act for the primary purpose of directly enhancing the public officer’s or employee’s financial interest or financial position.” Trujillo states that if Bernstein was to vote to delay school reopening, even if she was in the minority and the motion failed, there would be a strong perception that the vote was for her own personal financial gain.
“This is not a simple direct financial benefit such as a contract with the District for a company that the Board member has more than a 20% ownership and she may not ‘purposefully’ make a decision for financial benefit. However, a strong case could be made that a vote to keep schools closed would in fact be a direct financial gain,” Trujillo said.
She noted that it is a fourth degree felony for anyone convicted of purposely taking an official action for financial gain.
“Because of the way the business is being advertised to provide support for total remote or partial remote learning, it could be argued that any vote to delay full re-entry to school is a financial gain for the Board member. It is my recommendation that the Board member abstain from any conversation or vote related to school remote learning, delayed opening or partial opening,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo noted that the decision is one Bernstein must make and that there is nothing the Board can do to stop a member’s participation in discussion. She advised that if Bernstein abstains from discussion, she should note on the record why she is abstaining.
Attempts to reach Bernstein by phone Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.