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Governor fires public education secretary

Former New Mexico Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo answers questions at a news conference outside the Governor’s Office after being announced as the state’s top public education official in January. (Eddie Moore/ Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Just six months after appointing Karen Trujillo as New Mexico’s public education chief, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham fired her from the high-profile job Monday for not meeting expectations.

The first-term Democratic governor did not give details, but a Lujan Grisham spokesman cited communication and leadership issues and said education initiatives were not being implemented as quickly and thoroughly as the governor wanted.

“It is absolutely imperative that we genuinely transform public education in this state,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “We must identify a vibrant and ambitious new leader for the Public Education Department as quickly as we possibly can. …

“The well-being of New Mexico’s students, parents and educators remains the top priority of this administration.”

A former classroom teacher and longtime education researcher from Las Cruces, Trujillo was appointed by Lujan Grisham in January after a lengthy search.

Her appointment was lauded by teachers union leaders, and she was confirmed by the state Senate 38-0 during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

However, the PED encountered turbulence in trying to persuade school districts to take part in an expanded learning program for kindergarten through fifth-grade students that extends the school year by 25 days.

That was despite lawmakers’ setting aside roughly $120 million for the K-5 Plus program – or more than double the amount spent in previous years on a similar program. Overall, public school spending now makes up 46 percent of the New Mexico’s $7 billion budget.

New Mexico education officials and legislators have also been grappling with how to comply with a state judge’s landmark ruling that the state was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students.

Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman, said there were “persistent concerns” about Trujillo’s handling of issues, including the expanded K-5 Plus program.

“She just didn’t have the right leadership qualities for us to deliver on the governor’s ‘moonshot,'” Stelnicki said, referring to a plan to address the court ruling by increasing teacher salaries, extend New Mexico’s school year and give more money through the state’s funding formula to school districts with a large number of low-income students.

“The trajectory is not where we want it to be,” Stelnicki added.

The Lujan Grisham administration has begun a nationwide search to find a new public education secretary, according to the Governor’s Office. Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff will serve as interim secretary for the time being and internal candidates will be considered for the permanent job, Stelnicki said.

No warning

In an interview late Monday, Trujillo said she had no idea she was about to be fired.

She had just moved to Santa Fe, she said, and the Governor’s Office hadn’t raised any issues with her job performance that would make her think her employment was in jeopardy.

But Trujillo said she was called in Monday afternoon to meet with the Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer, Teresa Casados, and told the administration wanted to move in a different direction.

“They were not really able to give me a reason,” said Trujillo, who said she never spoke directly to the governor.

Trujillo said the team of administrators at the Public Education Department is a strong one and will continue to do good work. Everyone seemed to be in shock at her removal, she said.

Trujillo suggested New Mexico may want to move away from having the public education secretary serve at the pleasure of the governor.

“If we’re ever going to move forward in this state,” she said, “we have to remove kids from the political arena. It really needs to be keeping them at the center and valuing who they are and valuing teachers. I feel like I did that.”

Explanation sought

The news of Trujillo’s firing caught some lawmakers and union officials by surprise.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said she wants to hear more about what led to Trujillo’s removal.

“I do think the governor owes us all more of an explanation,” Stewart said.

But she said she appreciates “the governor’s paying attention to detail and wanting to have her Cabinet the way she wants it.”

It’s natural, Stewart said, for there to be some turnover early in an administration. She said there hasn’t always been good communication between the Public Education Department and the Governor’s Office.

Other legislators weighed in via social media, with Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, tweeting that Trujillo’s dismissal was a “shame and a setback.”

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, a union group, said she didn’t know the reasons behind Lujan Grisham’s decision.

But Bernstein said, “I will tell you this: I personally and professionally have put my faith in the governor to do what’s best for public education. …

“I’m going to keep my trust in the idea that we’re going to do good work in the future and just hope that this is part of that process.”

Charles Goodmacher, the government and media relations director for the National Education Association-New Mexico union, said his union also retained confidence in the remaining PED leadership team but acknowledged being surprised by Trujillo’s firing.

“We are surprised because we were not aware of concerns with the department’s performance,” Goodmacher said.

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