February 6, 2017

Senators halt proposal to revive state school board

Five Democrats joined four Republicans on Monday to block a bill that would have eliminated the job of Cabinet secretary of public education and resurrected a statewide board to oversee schools in New Mexico.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 9-2 to table Senate Joint Resolution 2, a proposed constitutional amendment to create a 10-member school board that in turn would hire a secretary of education. In the existing system, the governor appoints someone to run the Public Education Department.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, introduced the resolution, saying it would return power to school districts and would allow the state board to hire or fire a secretary of education at will.

“If the individual [secretary] does a poor job, the state school board can take that individual out of the position,” Padilla told the committee. Otherwise, he said, even if a secretary of education is doing a good job, a newly elected governor could “turn it upside down” by hiring his or her own person for the job.

A state board of education once existed, but former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who served from 2003 through 2010, created the cabinet position of secretary of education. Veronica García, superintendent of the Santa Fe Public Schools, was the state’s first education secretary.

Eleanor Ortiz and Virginia Trujillo, both of whom served on the state school board, testified in favor of Padilla’s bill. But they didn’t sway the committee.

Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto and Jacob Candelaria, both Democrats from Albuquerque, told Padilla that the influence of outside forces — including super political action committees — could funnel large sums of money into election campaigns and shape the school board.

In addition, Candelaria said, Padilla’s proposal is a means of saying, “If we don’t get what we want, we change the rules.”

He was referring to the fact that most Democrats in the Senate voted against confirming Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera, who took office in 2011 but did not receive a vote in the Senate for four years. Senators finally confirmed Skandera on a 22-19 vote, though many Democrats challenged her qualifications. Skandera has never been a classroom teacher or a principal.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, one of only two committee members who voted for Padilla’s bill, said he liked the fact that it would put power back in the hands of the public, who would ultimately have the right to boot out the school board members if they were not doing a good job.

Ivey-Soto countered that few people would likely run for these board seats.

“The level of engagement is fairly low and the level of dark money is very high,” he said.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, also supported Padilla’s resolution.

After losing the committee vote, Padilla said he was optimistic about getting a second chance during the session if he continues working on the bill. But a bill tabled by a committee rarely is reconsidered, so his proposal probably is dead.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com