Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The abrupt firing of New Mexico Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo continued to reverberate Tuesday, a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removed Trujillo from the high-profile job for failing to meet expectations.
With just weeks remaining before the start of a new school year, some lawmakers expressed concern that Trujillo’s dismissal could shake public confidence in the agency that oversees New Mexico’s 89 school districts.
Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said teachers and school employees “were starting to regain trust in the PED.”
“My concern is whether this is going to cause a problem with that,” he said in an interview. “I think everybody’s just a little shocked.”
The removal of Trujillo also prompted PED chief of staff Daniel Manzano to submit his resignation Tuesday.
“While I was committed to serving alongside Secretary Karen Trujillo and her vision for public education, I believe it is appropriate for the next secretary to have the opportunity to choose their own chief of staff,” Manzano told the Journal. “We accomplished a lot for kids in New Mexico in a short period of time, and I have no doubt that the department will continue to move forward.”
The Governor’s Office has cited communication and leadership issues as the reason for Trujillo’s firing. A Lujan Grisham spokesman also said education initiatives were not being implemented as quickly or as thoroughly as the governor wanted.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, an education expert who temporarily ran the PED for several weeks in January before Trujillo was appointed Cabinet secretary, said Tuesday that he planned to meet with agency employees later this week about the leadership situation.
He also said he was not worried that Trujillo’s dismissal as education secretary would destabilize the state’s public education system.
“I believe in educators all across the state, and I believe the vision has been set,” Morales told the Journal. “The governor just felt this was the best thing to do and the best direction to go in.”
Morales did not directly respond to a question about whether he was surprised by Lujan Grisham’s decision, but said that he has confidence in the remaining PED leadership team and that Lujan Grisham will find a qualified successor for Trujillo, who had been earning a $150,000 annual salary as a Cabinet secretary.
A nationwide search is underway to find a new public education secretary, according to the Governor’s Office. Deputy Public Education Secretary Kara Bobroff is serving as interim secretary.
A Democrat who was elected governor last year, Lujan Grisham has prodded members of her Cabinet to move quickly on her agenda.
Trujillo’s firing came as the PED is overhauling major state education systems, including A-F school grades, teacher evaluations and the state’s standardized test implemented during the tenure of former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who stepped down at the end of last year.
The U.S. Department of Education approved school accountability changes earlier this month, allowing the state to move from school grades to a dashboard model that will show information about individual schools, from academic statistics to narratives.
The Public Education Department just assembled a 46-member task force that will help create a new evaluation system. And the PED is seeking bids from potential vendors for a new assessment to replace the PARCC exam.
But the department encountered difficulties 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. Lujan Grisham’s spokesman said the issue exemplified the governor’s larger concerns about Karen Trujillo’s job performance.
However, Trujillo said in an interview late Monday that she had no idea her job was in jeopardy. She had just moved to Santa Fe over the weekend.
“I had no inclination that this was on the horizon at all,” Trujillo told the Journal.
She said she was called to the Governor’s Office late Monday to meet with Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer, Teresa Casados, and was told the governor wanted to move in a different direction. Trujillo said she told Casados that she wouldn’t resign.
Her dismissal was announced hours later.
Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Trujillo had been made aware of concerns that she was not meeting the governor’s expectations.
He also said the decision to remove Trujillo from her high-profile post was not made lightly.
“I think six months is more than enough time to prove whether someone is up for the job,” Stelnicki said. “The governor cares deeply about public education and New Mexico students … and if she feels a change has to be made, she’s going to do it.”
It’s unclear what impact, if any, Trujillo’s dismissal will have on the state’s compliance with a landmark 2018 ruling that New Mexico was not providing a uniform and sufficient education for all children, especially those who are considered “at-risk,” such as students who live in low-income households, Native American students and English-language learners.
Plaintiffs in the case filed a biting court brief last month, arguing that the state and particularly lawmakers still aren’t doing enough to provide resources and a sufficient education for students who are at-risk.
At least some of the plaintiffs in the “Yazzie-Martinez” lawsuit – actually two separate lawsuits that were merged – have also said a $447 million spending increase for public schools that was approved during this year’s 60-day legislative session will go primarily to paying for state-mandated educator salary increases, not for expanded training and student programs.
The Center on Law and Poverty, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to Journal questions about how Trujillo’s firing will affect its efforts.
Meanwhile, Veronica Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools and a former PED secretary, said her district is moving forward with the coming school year as planned despite the shake-up in Lujan Grisham’s administration.
“While it can be a little unsettling, we also have a very clear vision and mission and guiding principals and goals and objectives for this school year,” she told the Journal. “I don’t think we’ll miss a beat; we’ll just keep going.”
Journal Capitol bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this story.