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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The decision by New Mexico Public Education Department chief Hanna Skandera to leave her position after six-plus years on the job drew strong reactions Thursday, with many Democrats and teachers union leaders heralding the news and Skandera supporters rushing to her defense.
Skandera, 43, a self-described “reformer” who encountered persistent political headwinds during her tenure as PED chief, told the Journal earlier this week she would be resigning effective June 20 but has not yet settled on her next career move.
Gov. Susana Martinez, who appointed Skandera to lead the department in 2010, said Thursday that New Mexico public schools and students are better off now than they were when Skandera took the agency’s reins.
“Since day one of my administration, she’s been relentlessly committed to helping us fight the status quo – like teachers’ unions and other entrenched special interests – to reform education and give our students, teachers, parents and schools more of what they need to succeed,” Martinez said in a statement.
However, former Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen wrote on social media that Skandera’s pending resignation was the “best news for New Mexico children in a long time.”
Sanchez and other Democratic lawmakers have long claimed Skandera, whose pre-New Mexico background included experience in education policy at the state and national levels but not as a classroom teacher, failed to meet the constitutional requirements to lead PED.
Skandera was not confirmed by the Senate as a Cabinet secretary until February 2015 – more than four years after she was appointed – but she ultimately stayed on the job longer than all but four of Martinez’s original Cabinet members.
Lorenzo Garcia, vice president of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education, said he was surprised to hear Skandera is leaving.
“She always was cordial to me,” Garcia told the Journal. “I didn’t agree with her policies. Unfortunately, she was never open to a dialogue. That’s a sad commentary on our current state of gridlock. … Certainly we all want our schools to do better, but I think their agenda was partisan and not necessarily thoughtful.”
APS did not respond to requests for comment, but its administrators have tangled with Skandera, most recently sending her a report that criticizes aspects of the state’s plan to meet the federal requirements laid out in the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who works as a school superintendent, said he thinks Skandera struggled to communicate effectively with teachers and school leaders during her early years on the job.
However, he said, she improved in that area in recent years, while adding the department’s use of data has helped to better inform parents about school performance and led to improved graduation rates.
“I think the paradigm has shifted and that’s good for the state,” Roch said Thursday.
Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, who ran for governor in 2014 and has been a frequent critic of some PED initiatives, credited Skandera for staying on the job for more than six years in the face of steady opposition.
But he said changes including a controversial teacher evaluation system and school-by-school grades – cited by Skandera as some of her successes – have had a “detrimental” impact on the state’s school system.
“The status quo has become overuse of standardized testing and use of data to drive learning,” Morales told the Journal. “Education doesn’t need to be further standardized; it needs to be individualized.”
Kathy Sandoval-Snider, principal at Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science, lauded Skandera for bringing necessary policy changes to New Mexico.
“We were a state that was desperately in need of those reforms,” Sandoval-Snider told the Journal. “I am so sick of hearing our children can’t learn because they’re poor or their parents are not very good parents – a variety of reasons. You know what, that lets those kids down. … What you need to do is make sure you hold high standards for these kids because every kid can learn.”
Sandoval-Snider said she instituted similar reforms at AIMS before Skandera arrived, and they work.
AIMS, an Albuquerque charter school located on the University of New Mexico campus, was recently ranked first in New Mexico and 43rd in the nation by The Washington Post.
“Her leaving will not stop that reform movement,” Sandoval-Snider told the Journal. “I think her department, PED, is solid, and I think they will continue on and I hope they continue on because we cannot go back to what we were.”
Union leaders pleased
Capping off a largely acrimonious relationship, both of the state’s largest teachers unions praised Skandera’s departure.
National Education Association-New Mexico President Betty Patterson said Skandera was “relatively open and collaborative” when she started on the job in 2010, but began imposing policies administratively after she hit resistance.
“During her six-plus years in office, Secretary Skandera established a new ‘status quo’ for education policy and direction in New Mexico: tarnishing the enormous value of local teachers and other school employees who work tirelessly to increase student academic and life success,” Patterson said.
American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly argued that Skandera and Martinez have been responsible for “relentless attacks on public schools in favor of charter and private schools,” and claimed a teacher evaluation system enacted administratively in 2011 after having been rejected by the Legislature was one of the nation’s most punitive systems.
Both unions have filed lawsuits seeking to strike down the teacher evaluations, which use student test score improvement as a major factor.
A trial on another lawsuit, filed by two different advocacy groups, that asserts New Mexico is failing to adequately fund education programs for minority and non-English speaking students is set to begin next week.
Supporters credited Skandera with improving the state’s educational outlook.
Hope Morales, an incoming vice principal at Mesa Middle School and former teacher at Military Heights Elementary in Roswell, also said she believes New Mexico schools are moving in a positive direction.
During the past school year, Morales was a member of the New Mexico Policy Fellows, a group of 15 educators from around the state that recommended changes to the teacher evaluation system. Skandera adopted their suggestions in May.
Under the new system, test scores will make up 35 percent of the evaluation, down from 50 percent, and teachers can take six sick days, rather than three, before their evaluations are impacted.
“Before I met her, I only knew what was in the news,” Morales said. “I went in a little skeptical myself, but one of the things I think most people maybe don’t see about her is she was really there to listen. … She really gave people the opportunity to speak. She really showed she is a person who cared and really wanted to help New Mexico and put us in a better place.”
In a short statement, Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland wished Skandera well and said she looks forward to working with her successor.
Skandera’s pending resignation marks the latest Cabinet turnover for Martinez, who was re-elected in 2014 and is barred from running again for governor next year.
At least a half-dozen Cabinet secretaries have left the Martinez administration in the last year, a trend that is not uncommon for second-term governors.
Skandera, who is currently making an annual salary of $126,500, seemed headed for a top education job in President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year, but those plans were apparently scuttled because of resistance from some Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Before being appointed by Martinez, Skandera worked as an education policy adviser in Florida, California, Texas and Washington, D.C.
She told the Journal earlier this week her time as PED secretary had been “the most challenging and rewarding” of her career, but acknowledged the education system still faces stark challenges in a state with the nation’s highest jobless rate.
The Republican governor announced Thursday that Deputy Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski will serve as acting Cabinet secretary after Skandera’s departure.
A former middle school social studies teacher, Ruszkowski worked for nearly six years at the Delaware Department of Education under former Democratic Gov. Jack Markell. He joined the New Mexico Public Education Department in 2016.