By Nathan Brown and Phill Casaus, The Santa Fe New Mexican
It’s almost as if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet has sprung a leak.
Three Cabinet secretaries have said they were departing within the past week — the most recent Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus, whose retirement was announced Saturday in a news release from the Governor’s Office. Steinhaus follows John Garcia and Dr. David Scrase, who last week said they were leaving the General Services and Human Services departments, respectively.
Steinhaus’ last day was Friday. Children’s Cabinet Director Mariana Padilla will serve as interim head of the department until a permanent appointment is named.
Lujan Grisham said in a statement she is “deeply grateful” to Steinhaus and touted his relationships with districts across the state and the increases in teacher pay during his tenure, making New Mexico the best-paying state in the region for educators.
“The state of public education in New Mexico is in a better place than ever because of Kurt’s dedication, and I wish him a very happy and well-deserved retirement,” she said.
Steinhaus had served as a department’s deputy secretary during his career. He was named by the governor to head the department in the summer of 2021 when Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart stepped down.
His retirement doesn’t come as a complete shock.
In June, he told his staff he was staying on in a reduced capacity due to health issues. A day later, he issued an email announcing he planned to “re-retire.”
But Steinhaus remained on the job, and as recently as Monday was talking to legislators about the Public Education Department’s budget.
“I think Secretary Steinhaus has done an amazing job leading New Mexico through some of the toughest years that we’ve ever seen in education,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said in an interview Saturday. “My gratitude goes out to him and his staff for everything they’ve done. Education here in New Mexico is in a better place because of him. We want to thank him, but we look forward to whoever is going to be named and hopefully confirmed to lead our district forward from where he has left it.”
Steinhaus’ sudden departure, announced on a weekend, was a surprise to some.
State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said she was sorry to see Steinhaus go, calling him a “champion for children and teachers.”
“It will be hard to replace a person like Secretary Steinhaus, with the kind of history and experience he has,” she said. “I’m so very sorry for our school systems.”
Steinhaus began his career as a teacher at Alamogordo Public Schools, working there from 1976 to 1988, according to the Governor’s Office. He taught at Santa Fe Community College and the University of New Mexico before getting a job at the state Department of Education, where he held various leadership roles. He also served as superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools for five years.
“I am deeply proud to have given my best to this job, but at this time I have a critical need to focus on my family and health,” Steinhaus said in a statement released by the Governor’s Office. “I am grateful to the governor for giving me the opportunity to finish my career working on behalf of the state of New Mexico, and I know that she will continue to work to deliver the best possible public education system for New Mexico students, educators, and families.”
Kernan said Steinhaus’ departure — he is the third education secretary, not including interim leaders, under Lujan Grisham — could mean it’s time to look at structural changes in how the agency is led.
“I think it may be time to have a conversation about how we select our state’s school chief, the person that has oversight of schools,” she said, noting the position of public education secretary was elevated to a Cabinet-level job during a previous administration.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he has known Steinhaus for many years. He said the two of them had long telephone conversations every two weeks or so to discuss education issues.
“[Our talks] were very cordial, very friendly,” Soules said in an interview Saturday. “Both of us think very highly of the other one.”
Lujan Grisham’s appointment of Steinhaus’ successor will go through the Senate Rules Committee, not the education committee, although Soules said he expects many of his colleagues will ask for his opinion. Soules said he hopes the next secretary, like Steinhaus, is someone from New Mexico who is already familiar with the state’s education system. Bringing in an outsider, he said, would mean that person has to spend several months learning about the state.
“The change is always difficult and slows down the education process,” he said.
Reporter Margaret O’Hara contributed to this story.