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No end in sight to Skandera hearing

SANTA FE — The second day of a state Senate confirmation hearing on Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera followed a script similar to the first, with back-and-forth testimony Saturday over Skandera’s qualifications but no vote on her nomination.

The highly-charged hearing is expected to continue during the coming week in the Senate Rules Committee, whose members have so far listened to seven hours of public testimony but not yet questioned Skandera directly.

Dozens of educators, many of them affiliated with teacher unions, criticized the résumé of the Gov. Susana Martinez nominee during Saturday’s five-hour long hearing at the Capitol.

Many of those critics said Skandera’s lack of classroom teaching experience should disqualify her. Others criticized her agenda, including pushes to implement a grading system for public schools and performance evaluations for teachers.

“Ms. Skandera is not an education professional, and she has not honored those of us who are,” said Tanya Kunhee, a teacher at Albuquerque’s West Mesa High School.

Meanwhile, New Mexico business leaders and several school superintendents lined up to support Skandera, who has headed up the Public Education Department since January 2011 but not until now had a confirmation hearing.

Hal Stratton, a former legislator and state attorney general, said courts would likely rule that Skandera meets the constitutional requirement that New Mexico’s secretary of education be a “qualified, experienced educator.”

“There are many ways you can be an educator without being a classroom teacher,” Stratton told Senate Rules Committee members.

Skandera’s supporters also said she has proposed changes that could improve New Mexico’s public education system.

“I, for one, am tired of the trend and the mediocrity,” said Allan Tapia, superintendent of Bernalillo Public Schools.

“New Mexico is capable of much better,” Tapia said. “We cannot continue to do things the same and expect a different result.”

Skandera has been an education policy adviser in Florida, Texas, California and Washington, D.C., including a stint as deputy commissioner of education under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

She told reporters after Saturday’s hearing that she was disappointed the Senate Rules Committee did not vote on her nomination.

“I wish we would have kept going — let’s get to it,” Skandera said.

Skandera also expressed frustration at not being able to respond to educators who criticized her ideas, saying, “One of the hardest things is to listen and not have the opportunity to dialogue.”

Skandera opponents said her lack of teaching experience in New Mexico makes it impossible for her to relate to educators.

“Our leaders need experience in New Mexico, not California or Florida,” said Carol Brown, an official with Rio Rancho School Employees Union.

At one point during Saturday’s hearing, which was held on the Senate floor due to the overflow crowd, Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, accused aides to the Republican governor of assailing her outside her Capitol office on Friday evening.

“Bullying is not acceptable,” Lopez told reporters. “We don’t do things like that.”

Martinez’s deputy chief of staff Jessica Hernandez dismissed the bullying claim as “ridiculous,” saying she and a PED attorney merely asked Lopez for a copy of a report on Skandera, compiled by a political operative, that was locked in Lopez’s office.

The report was presented Saturday over GOP objections by Michael Corwin, who runs a union-supported political group. Among other things, it accused Skandera of misusing public dollars during her time at PED.

The Senate has refused, one way or another, to confirm seven top governor nominees since 1989. However, the last cabinet secretary nomination to be voted down came in 1997 under Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.

It was unclear Saturday exactly when the Senate Rules Committee will resume Skandera’s confirmation hearing. Lopez said the committee will focus on other business during its next scheduled hearing on Monday.

The 60-day legislative session ends March 16.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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