Proposed education department overhaul now faces last hurdle

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.

Governor names new Public Education Department head

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham nominated Los Lunas Superintendent Dr. Arsenio Romero to be the new Public Education Department Secretary on Tuesday. “Dr. Romero has been a key education policy partner since the beginning of my administration,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release. “With his broad range of experience as a teacher, a principal, and superintendent in districts across the state, I have full confidence that he will continue to build innovation and access for New Mexico students. Dr. Romero has the vision and expertise to implement the changes our public education system needs.”  

Romero hails from Belen and became an educator after having been inspired by his mother who taught first grade, the news release states. “I am incredibly honored to be entrusted by Gov. Lujan Grisham and the people of our state with leading the New Mexico Public Education Department,” Romero said in the news release.

Push to resurrect board of education, eliminate PED secretary gains traction

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Voters would be asked whether they want to resurrect a statewide board to oversee New Mexico’s beleaguered public schools under a proposed constitutional amendment the Senate Rules Committee endorsed Monday. Senate Joint Resolution 1 would eliminate the Cabinet position of public education secretary, and a 15-member board of education — including 10 elected members and five members appointed by the governor — would hire a state superintendent, who would direct the policies of the Public Education Department. “We need stability in education, and that’s the bottom line on this” proposal, the lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec, told the Rules Committee. He cited the turnover of six public education secretaries since 2003, including three under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The proposed constitutional amendment would go before voters in 2024 if the Legislature passes SJR 1.

State Public Education Secretary Steinhaus announces retirement

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.

Senate confirms appointment of public education secretary after GOP grilling

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.

House passes bill to appropriate $504 million in federal relief funds

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.

A ‘pause’ on in-person K-12 teaching until at least Labor Day

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.

School budget cuts could be worse than thought, advocates say

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.

Guv’s public health order extended another month

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.

New website connects volunteers who can help healthcare providers during pandemic

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.