NM education chief retires as Cabinet turnover continues - Albuquerque Journal

NM education chief retires as Cabinet turnover continues

In this file photo, retired Los Alamos schools Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus speaks in a July 2021 news conference announcing his appointment to succeed Ryan Stewart as the public education secretary. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Kurt Steinhaus — New Mexico’s third public education secretary in four years — announced his retirement Saturday, accelerating an unusual burst of turnover during a legislative session.

Steinhaus is the third Cabinet secretary in four days to reveal plans to leave the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. His last day was Friday.

Three other high-level officials outside the Cabinet also announced their departures in the last 10 days.

The turnover comes amid a 60-day legislative session in which lawmakers — with plenty of revenue to spend — are examining ways to boost academic achievement in public schools.

In a written statement, Lujan Grisham said Steinhaus is leaving public education in a better place and deserves a happy retirement.

“I am deeply grateful to Secretary Steinhaus for his lifelong and tireless service in pursuit of improving educational outcomes for every New Mexico student,” the governor said.

Steinhaus, a retired Los Alamos schools superintendent, also drew praise from legislators Saturday for his performance. But some pointed out that he served for just a year and a half.

Lujan Grisham will be looking for her fourth PED secretary in four years.

“It sounds like she’s a little hard to work with,” Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, a Rio Rancho Republican and member of the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview.

Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez, had just two public education secretaries in an eight-year period, one of whom served six-plus years.

But the Lujan Grisham administration has noted that her tenure coincided with a pandemic, adding to the stress of what are already high-pressure jobs. Changes during a governor’s second term are also normal.

“These are not your average ‘9 to 5′ jobs — they require a high level of dedication and come with the highest level of responsibility,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Friday.

Steinhaus, for his part, said in a written statement that he was honored to have worked on behalf of Lujan Grisham and public educators.

“I am deeply proud to have given my best to this job,” he said, “but at this time I have a critical need to focus on my family and health.”

As PED secretary, Steinhaus oversaw the implementation of new social studies standards and helped lead the state’s response to a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico was violating the rights of some students by failing to provide an adequate public education.

Results last year from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” put New Mexico students just about dead last in proficiency out of the over-50 states and jurisdictions that were sampled, for fourth and eighth grade reading and math.

Children’s Cabinet Director Mariana Padilla will fill in until a permanent appointment is made.

‘Learning curve’

Sen. William Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the volume of leadership changes at the Public Education Department “is a matter of concern.”

“Every time there’s a new one,” he said, “there’s a learning curve for them to catch up. That turnover certainly matters.”

But he also said the retirement of Steinhaus wasn’t necessarily a surprise, given that he’d come out of retirement in the first place to take the job.

Brandt said he, too, had expected Steinhaus to retire at some point to spend more time with his family.

In June, Steinhaus announced that he was giving up some of his day-to-day duties as he handled a personal health issue.

But the timing is unusual, with lawmakers about two weeks into a 60-day legislative session that will shape education policy and spending priorities.

Leading the Public Education Department “is a really tough job,” Soules, a teacher, said of Steinhaus. “I think he’s done admirably.”

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, an Albuquerque Democrat and teacher who serves as chairman of the House Education Committee, said the departure of Steinhaus won’t deter legislators from pursuing effective policy initiatives this session.

“Our working relationship was really good,” Romero said of Steinhaus. “It was nice to have a local teacher, a local administrator in the position of secretary of education.”

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, a union, said Steinhaus “was accessible. We could talk about issues even when we didn’t agree.”

Teachers, she said, have been frustrated by the number of vacancies in the Public Education Department and that continuing turnover at the top “is a concern.”

Bernstein said it may prompt some questions about whether New Mexico has the right governance model for public education. Before the public education secretary became part of the governor’s administration about 20 years ago, the state had a schools superintendent who was chosen by an elected statewide school board.

“I think it’s part of a larger debate,” Bernstein said of the turnover.

Succession of secretaries

Lujan Grisham hired Karen Trujillo as her first public education secretary in January 2019. She dismissed Trujillo six months later.

In August 2019, the governor appointed Ryan Stewart, the first African American to hold the state’s top education job. He stepped down about two years later, citing the health of a family member.

Steinhaus joined the administration in 2021.

The administration is seeing turnover outside PED, too.

Since Wednesday, three Cabinet secretaries have announced plans to leave the administration — Steinhaus, Human Services Secretary David Scrase and General Services Secretary John Garcia.

Since Jan. 20, the state also has announced the departures of the deputy superintendent of regulation and licensing, New Mexico Medicaid program director and Behavioral Health Collaborative chief executive.

In addition, the secretaries of the departments of Finance and Administration, Indian Affairs and Veterans Services have also stepped down over the past several months.

Lujan Grisham, herself a former Cabinet secretary, won reelection to a second, four-year term in November.

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