'They have created a divisive atmosphere in the public schools by reaching out to manipulate, threaten and coerce superintendents' -- Albuquerque Sen. Mimi Stewart, a teacher
The debacle over the missteps of the Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent provides a window into a disturbing statewide effort by Gov. Susana Martinez and the state Department of Education to bypass local school boards and implement policy directly through local school administrators.
“They have created a divisive atmosphere in the public schools by reaching out to manipulate, threaten and coerce superintendents,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat and teacher who sits on the two legislative school committees.
“What’s happening is coercion to follow what they want for education reform and not what administrators and teachers know needs to be done.”
That Luis Valentino would attempt to text Education Secretary Hannah Skandera about how he was going after the APS’s chief financial officer for “running roughshot” is a telling detail into how deeply Skandera was involved in APS affairs during Valentino’s short tenure.
APS Board member Steven Michael Quezada said his three years on the school board have been a wake-up call to the lengths the Martinez administration will go to end-run the board legally empowered to supervise its superintendent.
“I thought that if we brought someone from San Francisco, they wouldn’t have a political agenda, a dog in this thing,” he said. “My hope was to separate politics from education. Maybe it was ignorant on my part to think that.”
Skandera’s critics believe that commonalities in Skandera’s and Valentino’s resumes – places worked, schools attended, organizations belonged to – point to a conspiracy, but it was an APS decision to hire Valentino. Within education circles, it would have been unusual that they didn’t previously know each other.
But signs of administration involvement in APS affairs were there before that.
APS Election Involvement
In April, the governor took the unprecedented step of direct involvement in the defeat of APS Board member Kathy Korte, a strident Skandera critic (and past columnist for this newspaper). The governor both donated to the campaign of Korte’s challenger, Peggy Muller-Aragon, and recorded robocalls to GOP voters attacking Korte.
“Yeah, I think putting money into Peggy’s campaign, that’s outright blatant,” Quezada said. “That’s not even trying to hide their attempt to infiltrate and corrupt the board.”
As spectacular as the meltdown at APS was over the Valentino affair, less publicized examples of Santa Fe’s reaching down to the local level have occurred around the state.
When the superintendent of the Hobbs school district objected to Skandera’s teacher evaluation plan, that district was threatened in a meeting in the governor’s office with a cut-off of donations to the district’s non-profit foundation by wealthy donors in the oil and gas industry with ties to the governor. That led the Hobbs superintendent to do an about-face on his challenge to Skandera’s testing regime.
Other N.M. Examples
Sen. William Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat and former teacher, administrator and school board member, said similar pressure was applied in Las Cruces.
The Las Cruces school board was instructed by the PED that it should use a teacher evaluation system that penalized teachers for taking sick leave – even though they were legally entitled under the district’s union contract, Soules said.
“They insisted that a teacher, by taking any amount of sick leave when they were sick, would have that sick leave use counted against them in their evaluation,” Soules said. Faced with a possible loss of funding directly controlled by the PED, the Las Cruces board backed down, Soules said.
And that’s been the PED’s MO, aided by a carrot and stick it got through a restructuring of how New Mexico funds its 89 school districts.
For nearly four decades, the vast bulk of the 45-50 percent of the state budget spent on public schools went through what is called the public school funding formula – an equalization formula that guarantees kids in poor school districts get the same per capita amount of money each year as kids in wealthy districts.
When the Martinez administration took office, it persuaded legislators to set aside increasingly larger portions of New Mexico’s annual $2.7 billion budget for competitive grants that the PED directly administers.
It is that money that Skandera has been using to browbeat local school officials to acquiesce to her policy dictates, critics say.
“That gives the PED tremendous power to reward or not reward districts who do or do not enact reforms desired by the PED,” Soules said.
Those reforms include the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, test and the PED’s insistence that 50 percent of an experienced teacher’s annual evaluation be based on his or her student’s performance on standardized tests.
Ignoring Parents, Teachers
Despite widespread protests by parents, and even walkouts by students around New Mexico this spring, the governor and Skandera have held fast to their demand that local districts implement the mandated testing and evaluations, with almost no compromise.
“It would be alright if there were an actual collaboration,” Quezada said of the standardized testing and teacher evaluations. “Problem is, they haven’t listened to one teacher, one student, one school board, and that’s why we’re where we’re at.”
By Quezada’s calculation, despite the embarrassment caused by the Valentino episode and despite the growing opposition to the administration’s testing and evaluation measures, the governor and Skandera will not back down.
“I think they want to prove to someone that they’re right in a short amount of time because they have higher goals,” Quezada said, referring to talk of the governor as a possible vice-presidential candidate on the GOP ticket.
“Now, it’s too late, with only a couple of years left, to change makes her look weak.”
Dan Vukelich is editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org