March 9, 2023

Proposed education department overhaul now faces last hurdle

Public Domain

Headquarters of the Public Education Department in Santa Fe.

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A proposed overhaul of New Mexico’s public education system — eliminating the Cabinet secretary position and reestablishing a statewide board of education — is headed to its last stop, the House floor.

The House Education Committee voted 9-2 Wednesday to support Senate Joint Resolution 1, which calls for a November 2024 general election ballot question asking New Mexico voters to decide on a constitutional amendment making the change. The Senate already has approved the resolution, which does not need the governor’s signature to take effect. 

If voters approve the amendment, the revamped public education system would be similar to the one in place two decades ago.

New Mexico voters opted to dismantle the state school board in 2003 and create the Cabinet position of public education secretary under then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat. Veronica García, a former superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, served as the state’s first education secretary for about seven years under Richardson.

Hanna Skandera served in the position for more than six years under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Many other education secretaries have served much shorter terms, however, including those under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

When Lujan Grisham appointed Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero as Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department in February, he became the fourth person named to the position since Lujan Grisham took office in January 2019.

Romero, who has been on the job less than a week, was one of several people who spoke against the resolution Wednesday. He urged the committee to give him “time to right the ship.”

Moving back to a state school board will make it difficult for him to move forward with plans to improve the department and the public school system, he said. 

For many years New Mexico has been ranked at or near the bottom among states in national studies on public education. 

Advocates for the education overhaul, including Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, who co-sponsored it, said returning to a board of education is one way to bring stability to a department that has struggled to maintain steady leadership and improve the academic achievement and well-being of students. 

Under the proposed system, “no one [secretary] can come and go at the will of the governor,” Neville told the committee. 

Under the resolution, the new constitutional amendment would create a 15-member board that would develop public school policies, determine distribution of school funds and oversee financial accounting for districts. The governor would appoint five board members, while the other 10 would be elected by voters from yet-to-be-created districts.

The board members would serve in staggered six-year terms.

“We won’t have turmoil or turnover like universities,” Neville told the committee. 

The board also would appoint a superintendent of public instruction, who would oversee operations of the Public Education Department, according to the resolution. 

Most committee members liked the idea, though Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, spoke against it, saying it seems like “change for change’s sake.”

While some advocates said the move would take politics out of the education department, Trujillo said she believes “it will become even more political. To pretend it is not going to be political is incorrect.”

She noted members of the new state school board would be elected by constituents, and “you do what your constituents want you to do.”

Trujillo and Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo — who also said the board would be “political” — voted against SJR 1. 

If voters approve the amendment, the board would take over Jan. 1, 2027. 

Neville said in an interview he likes that the proposal ultimately “goes to the voters” to decide.