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.
Newly confirmed Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus received a firsthand lesson Wednesday on the cantankerous nature of New Mexico politics. No one questioned Steinhaus’ credentials as a longtime educator and administrator during two separate hearings on his confirmation, which the Senate ultimately passed 37-4. Rather, some Republicans zeroed in on the revolving door of Cabinet secretaries at the department, the impact of school lockdowns during the pandemic under orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and other contentious issues. Among the questions Steinhaus faced from Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee: Did the state make the right decision in suspending board members who ignored a public health order and voted to make face masks optional for students in the Floyd Municipal Schools? Steinhaus said it did.
An amended version of a spending bill passed both the full House and the House Appropriations and Finance Committee Friday which, if passed by the state Senate and signed by the governor, will appropriate $504 million of the $1.1 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan Act into state relief funds, state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces said. The bill ultimately passed the House on a 65-1 vote, including changes made in a committee. Small, a co-sponsor of HB 2, introduced the amendment to the HAFC meeting Friday morning. He said the $504 million is slightly less than half of the total funds the state is transferring into a contingency account of the general fund. The $504 million would be expected to be made available to the agencies and is intended, based on federal guidelines, to provide relief due to losses incurred from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid an increase in COVID-19 cases in New Mexico and region-wide that hit a record-high for single-day cases in New Mexico Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that schools will not begin in-person instruction until at least Labor Day. “This pause on in-person reentry is not the same as delaying education support,” Lujan Grisham said. School districts will be able to work with a remote-learning, or an online-only model, until at least Labor Day. And during that time, the state Public Education Department encouraged districts to aid students in supplies for online learning and provide additional professional development for teachers. The state’s goal is to phase-in some in-person learning, using a hybrid model with some in-person instruction and the rest as remote learning, after Labor Day.
Just as the New Mexico Legislature passes a new budget that will cut 0.6 percent out of the school budget for the next fiscal year, a newly released report shows that New Mexico is, again, at the bottom for child well being. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization focused on children, released its annual report this week on child well being and ranked New Mexico as 50th in the nation. James Jimenez, executive director for the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, said New Mexico has ranked near the bottom for “a very long time,” but came to the lowest ranking in 2013 and has been there “for a few years.”
“It’s a reflection of the fact that despite what people say, that kids are our most precious asset, it’s not true in the way we invest our money in state and local government,” Jimenez said. Last week the state passed a revised state budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that will cut 0.6 percent from the school budget despite cries from some school superintendents and advocates that this will be detrimental and will put the state in a position where it cannot live up to the requirements of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which said the state did not provide adequate education for students. Related: Superintendents: Proposed cuts to education will worsen racial and economic inequity
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the solvency budget, though she can veto by line-item.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Tuesday that she is extending the state’s public health order to stay at home until the end of April to continue social distancing. New Mexico has not peaked yet for COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus. Lujan Grisham and other state officials spoke Tuesday on a press conference streamed on Facebook about the state’s need to continue social distancing to flatten the curve so COVID-19 positive patients will not overwhelm hospitals in the state. That would cause more deaths, she said. So far, residents in New Mexico are not staying at home.
After seeing a need to support healthcare providers during the public health emergency, University of New Mexico medical student David Gangwish created a grassroots organization to help providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gangwish created Corona Care NM, which connects volunteers with healthcare providers. The volunteers help with childcare, pet sitting or household chores such as cleaning, cooking and grocery shopping while providers are working in hospitals during the pandemic. Gangwish, who will soon head for a residency in urology, said he got the idea because medical professionals were talking within the field about the problem of managing child care if the public schools closed. The Public Education Department moved to distance learning for the rest of spring semester last week.
The state will announce an extension of the closure of public schools on Friday, according to the state Public Education Department. The department made the announcement on social media. The initial closure would have ended on April 6. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and PED Secretary Ryan Stewart will make the announcement alongside the New Mexico Department of Health on Friday morning, with answers to questions online. “The final determination of the scope of the closure period will be done this afternoon, after examining extensive plans among different state agencies,” the PED statement said.
All New Mexico public schools will close for three weeks, effective Monday, March 16. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Public Education Department and the New Mexico Department of Health made the announcement Thursday evening. The governor said the state made the announcement Thursday to give parents and students time to prepare for the change. The governor will hold a press conference on Friday morning with more information. “We will be informing the public of additional measures that the state will be taking to ease the burden on families and educators and ensure that children continue to be fed and cared for,” Lujan Grisham said.
One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s favored legislative initiatives finally advanced Wednesday when the Senate Rules Committee voted 8-0 for a bill to create a centralized department for early childhood education. Senate Bill 22 would consolidate programs that are spread among several agencies, including the Public Education Department and the Children Youth and Families Department. The sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, helped his cause by cutting in half his initial request of $2.5 million to get the department running by July 1, 2020. Padilla now is seeking $1.25 million for the department to make the proposal more palatable. He said the public would benefit from the new agency.