By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
The Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment Wednesday of Dr. Arsenio Romero as Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department, the fourth person to lead the agency under the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“I’m here for the long haul,” Romero, a longtime educator, said during his initial confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to take on this challenge, and we’re going to steer this ship in the right direction,” he said.
Senators lauded Romero as the right man for the job.
“Unequivocally, he is the leader for these times,” said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas.
Romero’s appointment comes as the Legislature considers placing a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot to ask voters whether New Mexico should reestablish a statewide board of education, effectively eliminating the Cabinet secretary position.
“I understand the argument, and I understand why this has been brought forward,” Romero, who most recently served as superintendent of Los Lunas Schools, said when asked about the proposal.
“I have a little bit of worry about how that will go down if that becomes a reality because I want my tenure … to be as effective as possible, so no matter what the circumstances are, I’m going to move forward with doing everything I can to steer the ship in the right direction,” he said. “I will support this Legislature, and I will support everyone at PED to make sure that we are on the right track.”
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, a Albuquerque Democrat who worked as a teacher for almost three decades, said the education community across the state is “thrilled” with Romero’s appointment.
“This is who we wanted as secretary for a long time,” she said. “He started at five years old in his mother’s first grade classroom. He basically hasn’t left education since. He was a teacher. He’s been a principal, a regent at New Mexico State [University], and finally he’s in the spot where we all thought he needed to be for a long time.”
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said Romero has been a “leader of education” everywhere he’s worked.
“Probably one of his best traits is that he is calm, considerate, pays attention to what’s needed and doesn’t get rattled by a lot of other issues but stays focused on what’s best for children and what’s best for our schools,” he said. “That means what’s best for the future of New Mexico.”
In committee, Stewart said she got to know Romero after serving with him on a yearlong task force studying how to improve school grades.
“I found him just so visionary, understanding education at a deep level and able to think outside the box of what to do,” she said. “He’s a collaborator.”
Amanda Aragon, executive director of education policy organization NewMexicoKidsCAN, said the group is excited for Romero to take the helm.
“He acknowledges the challenges in our education system, and he’s really honest about those challenges while at the same time being very optimistic about the potential of every child in every seat in all 850-plus schools across the state of New Mexico,” she said.
Romero told the committee he would be data-driven.
“We have to get away from this idea of how we think about things or how we feel about things,” he said.
“That’s going to be everything from issues with Yazzie/Martinez [a 2018 court ruling that found the state wasn’t doing enough to ensure at-risk students were receiving a sufficient education] to issues with instruction to issues about chronic absenteeism,” he said. “I mean, you name the topic, we need to be able to have good accurate data to help us move forward.”
The Senate also confirmed the appointment Wednesday of Robert Doucette Jr. as secretary of the General Services Department and Donnie Quintana as secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.