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Skandera faces hostile crowd during ABQ forum

Public Education chief Hanna Skandera tackles a question from the audience during a forum Tuesday night in Albuquerque. Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Public Education chief Hanna Skandera tackles a question from the audience during a forum Tuesday night in Albuquerque. Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
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New Mexico’s education czar addressed a largely hostile crowd of nearly 200 people Tuesday evening and conceded that while the teacher evaluation program she initiated earlier this year is not perfect, it is an improvement over the past.

Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera began a three-hour public forum – her second such meeting in a week – at the National Hispanic Cultural Center by attempting to go through a PowerPoint presentation, but members of the audience interrupted her again and again, shouting out question after question.

The meeting was sponsored by the New Mexico Parent Teachers Association. PTA President Kim Kerschen assured the audience at the outset that the organization is non-partisan and “this is not taking anyone’s side.”

Many in the crowd were teachers, and many of them appeared wary, at a minimum, about much of what Skandera had to say. For example, when she tried to explain how teacher input was included in developing the new evaluation program, audience members challenged her assertions.

Skandera consistently defended the “transition in education” the state is going through under the current administration. She and Gov. Susana Martinez have been adamant in making changes in student testing and teacher evaluations to try to raise student growth and achievement. Many teachers, particularly in Albuquerque, but also around the state, dislike the approach the administration has taken.

The meeting had a few light moments. Just before it began, a woman dressed in a Scantron costume loudly proclaimed that she was Scantron Dera and would happily answer any and all questions. She was politely asked to leave by an apologetic security officer, who told her she could return if she removed the costume and promised not to disrupt the gathering.

At another point during Skandera’s PowerPoint presentation, a woman shouted out that a word on the screen was misspelled. Skandera was forced to acknowledge that “fidelity” was missing an “i.” The woman, apparently a teacher, said “we would be penalized for that,” a reference to the feedback teachers get from an automated, online evaluation program.

Skandera held a public forum in Moriarty last week and said she plans to hold four more around the state in the near future to explain changes in New Mexico’s education policy.

Most of the questions put to Skandera on Tuesday were critical and included declaratory statements: “The biggest mistake states make is rushing into an evaluation system.” Another noted that this is the first year the Common Core State Standards are applicable in New Mexico, then asked, “Why, when we don’t even have enough books and are struggling to implement Common Core, is 50 percent of our evaluations based on these scores? Is that fair?”

Common Core, introduced in New Mexico classes this year, sets nationwide standards for K-12 education.

At one point, Skandera handed her microphone to an aide, Matt Montaño, the PED’s director of educator quality, to answer a question about the evaluation process. When the audience began hooting and jeering, the moderator, attorney Rick Alvidrez, admonished them, “You can’t expect her to answer all of (the questions).”

“Why not?” the audience shot back.

The meeting was supposed to cover elementary and middle school issues during its first 90 minutes, then switch to high school matters. Skandera did her best to go over graduation requirements during the second half by trying to explain various testing procedures and rules to the crowd. By the time the meeting drew to a close, the audience had dwindled to about 100 people.

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