Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to fire Education Secretary Karen Trujillo on Monday took a lot of people in New Mexico by surprise, including Trujillo, who said she was blindsided.
It’s been three days, and some New Mexicans suspect they haven’t been given the real reason Trujillo was fired and why now.
The administration has said it was about her ability to communicate, manage and meet the governor’s expectations for transforming public education in New Mexico.
A spokesman initially pointed to the shaky rollout of a signature education program called K-5 Plus across the state, but the administration is beginning to walk back an effort to pin the firing on implementation of that program. Trujillo had pushed back, saying she didn’t get much direction from the governor and that she had raised alarm early on about how difficult K-5 Plus would be to implement immediately, as designed by the Legislature.
And Trujillo said if communication was deficient, it was on the part of the governor.
“It would have been nice to have a conversation with the governor where she said what her concerns were so that I could have done something about them, but that conversation never took place,” Trujillo said. Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s director of communications, said Trujillo heard from top administration officials from the governor’s office, including Lujan Grisham herself, about the governor’s frustration with her communications skills and leadership at the Public Education Department — and that Trujillo’s pushback comes from someone “with an axe to grind.”
“This was not infrequent communication. These concerns were not new. Interventions failed, a change had to be made,” Stelnicki said.
Two bills that would have created new guidelines for grading New Mexico’s teachers stalled during the just-completed legislative session, but the state Public Education Department will continue to transition away from the evaluation system implemented by the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez. Troubled by a teacher shortage, department officials say they are aiming to finalize a new rule outlining teacher evaluation standards that could become law in the 2020 session of the state Legislature. “We are trying to rebuild some trust between the department and educators. Across the board we are looking to change how we give schools or teachers feedback,” PED Deputy Secretary for Teaching and Learning Gwen Warniment said. “The old system did not offer teachers any type of mechanism through which you were able to become a reflective practitioner.
The state Senate’s confirmation process for New Mexico’s new public education secretary, Karen Trujillo, was short and painless. It lacked the drama, conflict and fire that marked hearings involving the controversial Hanna Skandera, who toiled through four years of political battles, committee hearings and public testimony over her confirmation, which Skandera at one point called “a circus.” In the end, the Senate voted 22-19 to confirm Skandera in 2015 — four years after she was appointed to the job by then-Gov. Susana Martinez. The Senate never confirmed Skandera’s successor, Christopher Ruszkowski, who took the job in the spring of 2017 on an interim basis after Skandera’s resignation and was named secretary-designate by Martinez later that year. For Trujillo, the entire process took little more than two hours and ended with a Senate vote of 38-0.
The New Mexico Public Education Department aims to scrap the state’s A-F grading system for public schools, which critics have said puts too much emphasis on student test scores. Under proposed changes to the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the agency says it will replace an accountability system that identifies schools as failing with one that classifies them by the amount of state and federal support they require. “This is a shift in philosophy from seeing schools as failing to seeing a call to action,” said Tim Hand, deputy secretary of the education department. “This underscores how we see that our role at the Public Education Department is to lead with support.” The effort comes as Democratic state lawmakers have introduced two measures — Senate Bill 229 by Sen. Mimi Stewart and House Bill 639 by Rep. G. Andrés Romero — that would repeal a law creating the A-F grading system.
Growing up surrounded by a mother and sisters who were teachers, Karen Trujillo decided to rebel. “No,” she said to herself as a child, rejecting the idea she should become an educator. “I don’t want to do that. I want to do something else.” But the call of the classroom was too strong for her to resist, she said, and when she was about 12 she had what she called an epiphany.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday finally hired her secretary of public education, and both said they aren’t afraid of the challenges ahead. “I’m feeling not so much fear but excitement,” said Karen Trujillo, a longtime educator from Las Cruces, who will lead the department. In choosing Trujillo for the $128,000-a-year job, Lujan Grisham ended weeks of speculation about who would overhaul a public education system often ranked as one of the worst in the country. The governor said Trujillo leads an “all-star team of education” professionals. Together, they hired four New Mexico educators as deputy secretaries and a special adviser from California whose background is in education and sociology.
State Rep. Bobby Gonzales shook his head from side to side after listening to all the suggestions about how to meet a judge’s order to provide more resources to New Mexico children who, in the court’s view, are not receiving a good public education. “About 15 different ideas,” the Democrat from Taos said following a hearing on the topic last week in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “Maybe we need to break it all down. Maybe we can’t do it all in one year.” But the state doesn’t have a year, or even half a year, to comply with a mandate handed down in June by state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe.
A bell on a desk greeted visitors to the lieutenant governor’s office during Howie Morales’ first couple weeks on the job. Ring for service, a sign said. Not particularly glamorous, it seemed to sum up the office of lieutenant governor, which comes with few official duties and even fewer prospects for higher office. But Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her early days in office has handed Morales a more expansive profile than many of his predecessors. She asked the former state senator, teacher and high school baseball coach to oversee the Public Education Department until she names a cabinet secretary.
In the coming days, governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham will take the first major step to fulfill her sweeping campaign promises on education – appointing a secretary to lead New Mexico’s troubled Public Education Department. Her choice will speak volumes – not only about her approach to education but also about her commitment to reform in a state that is primed for change. With a Democratic majority in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor-elect is in a position to address what many regard as New Mexico’s gravest problem: the fact that it sits at rock bottom in national rankings of student achievement. The state is under court order to fix a school funding system that was struck down as unconstitutional for its failure to provide adequate resources for at-risk students. So the choice of the new secretary will speak worlds about the degree to which Lujan Grisham intends to follow through on her pledge to “build a Pre-K-through-grade-12 education system that works for every single student and family.”
The state’s assistant secretary for Native American education is claiming she was unfairly forced out of the New Mexico Public Education Department earlier this month. In a two-page letter sent this week to the state’s tribal elders and obtained by New Mexico In Depth, Latifah Phillips said she “was approached with a termination letter with no explanation or any known documented reasoning, and then presented with the opportunity to resign.” (To read the full text of Phillips’ letter, click here.)
Phillips chose to be fired. She described her decision as “a small act of protest to the unfairness of this action.”
A spokeswoman for the Public Education Department did not respond to requests for comment on Phillips’ firing. Attempts to speak to Phillips about her letter were unsuccessful, too. The department’s website still lists Phillips as the assistant secretary for Native American education.