Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart – the first African American to hold the state’s top education job – said Thursday he is stepping down as his father struggles with an increasingly severe illness.
A longtime New Mexico educator, meanwhile, is set to take Stewart’s place.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the appointment of Kurt Steinhaus – the recently retired superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools – as the state’s next secretary of public education.
The appointment will require confirmation by the New Mexico Senate, but Steinhaus can begin working even before a vote.
Stewart, meanwhile, said he will stay on temporarily to aid in the transition. He is set to leave at the end of August.
The shake-up comes at a critical time, as New Mexico scrambles to help students catch up after more than a year of pandemic restrictions and disruption. The Public Education Department also faces a court decision that found New Mexico is violating the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.
Steinhaus, 67, has deep roots in New Mexico. He served as Los Alamos superintendent for six years, as a deputy public education secretary under then-Gov. Bill Richardson for two years, and as a teacher in Alamogordo from 1976 to 1988.
He made an energetic introduction Thursday during a news conference inside the Governor’s Office, declaring that he hoped to make the upcoming return to school a “year of literacy.” He broached the idea of districts sending every student home with a book and finding other ways to encourage reading.
Steinhaus outlined a series of goals ranging from improvements in teacher and student well-being to academic achievement. He said he wants New Mexico to lead the nation in academic growth in the next three years.
“I’m all in,” he said of the work ahead.
Steinhaus also called on New Mexico school districts to focus about $1 billion of their federal stimulus funding on teaching and learning, such as tutoring, before-school school programs and, perhaps, home visits to students’ families.
Districts have spent much of their earlier federal funds on equipment, ventilation repairs and similar projects.
“I want to see that money spent in a way that it creates a system of long-term improvement in New Mexico,” Steinhaus said.
His appointment drew favorable reviews.
“He has a really good pedigree and understands New Mexico,” said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders.
Stewart, in turn, will leave New Mexico two years after his appointment in 2019, when Lujan Grisham tapped him following the abrupt dismissal of his predecessor, Karen Trujillo.
Stewart served during a tumultuous time as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the state, triggering school closures and a shift to online learning. Many of New Mexico’s families lack access to high-speed internet service.
“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had to make some difficult choices,” Stewart said as he joined Lujan Grisham and others for Thursday’s news conference.
Stewart is a former algebra and science teacher who had served as a school executive in Philadelphia before joining Lujan Grisham’s administration.
He faced some criticism for working from Philadelphia during parts of the pandemic.
But Stewart said it was time for him to focus on his family, a decision he called difficult.
“Over much of the last year,” he said, “my family and I have been struggling as we’ve supported my father who has had an illness that has increased in severity over time.”
In a joint statement Thursday, Senate Republican leaders said the instability in the Public Education Department is adding to the challenges already facing students and teachers in New Mexico.
“The constant leadership turnover in this administration is beyond troubling and we are deeply concerned about the short- and long-term impacts on our state,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen, Minority Whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho and Caucus Chairman Mark Moores of Albuquerque said. “In this case, the department charged with overseeing public education in New Mexico will have its third Cabinet Secretary in less than three years.”
New public safety chief
Lujan Grisham also announced a second Cabinet appointment – Jason Bowie, deputy police chief in Rio Rancho, as the state’s new secretary of public safety.
Bowie, 49, takes over from Timothy Johnson, who had served as the acting Cabinet secretary and will now return to his position as State Police chief.
Bowie said he would work with law enforcement agencies in New Mexico to reduce crime, support officers and promote constitutional policing practices.
To young police officers, he said, “You are absolutely loved and supported – you are absolutely needed – but that love is not unconditional. We expect a lot from our police officers.”
Lujan Grisham also said she expects to deploy 50 officers to help address crime in certain parts of New Mexico.
When asked for specifics, State Police Lt. Mark Soriano said the agency is still in the process of developing a plan and will have more information once it’s finalized.
“The New Mexico State Police is and will continue to be committed to proactively protecting the citizens of Albuquerque in collaboration with law enforcement agencies in and around the metro area,” he said.
Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.