Confirmation vote on public education chief is at least days away
Critics say Skandera does not understand the demands on classroom teachers
The long-running debate on whether state senators should confirm or reject New Mexico’s public education chief will run even longer.
The Senate Rules Committee heard five more hours of testimony Saturday about how well Hanna Skandera has performed in the job, but it delayed at least until next week any vote on whether to confirm her.
With a Saturday hearing and no school in session, teachers from across New Mexico headed to the Capitol to comment on Skandera. Their testimony dominated the day, as dozens of teachers entered the Senate Chambers, where the hearing was moved to accommodate a crowd of about 150.
A majority of the teachers said Skandera, 39, either was unqualified or ineffective in running the state Public Education Department.
Skandera’s backers included a smaller group of teachers and school administrators, plus businesspeople and Republican politicians. They asked senators to confirm Skandera, saying she had improved the system by venturing into the world of virtual schools and demanding more of everyone in public schools.
An appointee of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, Skandera has been secretary-designate of public education for more than two years, but only last Friday was she called by the Rules Committee to start the confirmation hearing that could solidify her status.
One teacher, Michael Evans of Albuquerque, said Skandera’s methods were not innovative but a copycat of what other states had done without much success. He said she relies too much on standardized testing and “demonizes teachers” instead of inspiring them.
Other teachers cited the New Mexico Constitution, saying Skandera did not meet the legal standard to run the Public Education Department.
A more basic argument against Skandera’s candidacy was that she has never been a classroom teacher or principal, and that she is ignorant of what school professionals are up against every day.
“My kids are hungry and they are poor,” one teacher said. “They come in with handprints on their faces.”
A teacher and librarian at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque said that, as a matter of law, Skandera does not have the qualifications to be hired as a teacher in New Mexico, yet as secretary-designate she has wielded immense power over teachers, principals and schools.
Doug Manning, a Ph.D candidate at the University of New Mexico, formerly taught in Florida, where Skandera once worked. He said her approach on core testing in a couple of subjects was all wrong.
“Our children have a lack of exposure to social studies and science,” Manning said.
Skandera’s press aide said her supporters slightly outnumbered her detractors during the first two days of hearings. But one reason was that eight of Martinez’s other cabinet secretaries and five Republican legislators testified on her behalf.
Skandera also received support Saturday from the school superintendents in Bernalillo, Roswell and Pecos.
Allan Tapia, who heads the Bernalillo Public Schools, said there are teachers who do not want to be held accountable. His comment drew a hiss before Sen. Linda Lopez, the committee chairwoman, quieted the room.
Tapia said Skandera will give the state a chance to move from the bottom ladder of national education rankings.
“I for one am tired of the trend and the mediocrity. She is looking at our education system with a fresh set of eyes,” Tapia said.
Fred Trujillo, superintendent in Pecos, said he supported Skandera because she is an innovator.
“We need to change many of our ways,” he said.
And Lisa Todd, a 26-year teacher in Albuquerque and a Golden Apple Award recipient, said Skandera was an outstanding choice for public education secretary.
“I stand for quality education. I stand for Hanna Skandera,” Todd said.
Three Republican state representatives and two Republican senators, Gay Kernan and Sue Wilson Beffort, also attended Saturday’s hearing to speak for Skandera. The senators testified even though they probably would have a chance to debate her confirmation on the floor of the Senate.
Kernan, right, of Hobbs, told the committee she had received numerous calls from school superintendents in southeastern New Mexico on behalf of Skandera.
“She does have the background to serve as secretary of the state of New Mexico. She serves all the children of New Mexico,” Kernan said.
Hal Stratton, a Republican and former state attorney general, said Skandera was qualified to be education secretary, and that those who claimed otherwise were wrong. The state constitution does not say she has to be a licensed or experienced teacher, but someone versed in education policy, Stratton said.
The hearing also had twists.
Lopez, right, the committee chairwoman, said members of the governor’s administrative team went to her office after the Capitol had emptied Friday night and alleged that she had held back a politically motivated document critical of Skandera.
Lopez, D-Albuquerque, publicly said this was not true, and that she turned over everything to the Martinez administration and Skandera on Saturday morning.
“I don’t stand very well to bullying,” Lopez said. “To insinuate I was going to hold back information that I didn’t even have.... I get the ploy. I don’t appreciate it.”
The item in question was a report by Michael Corwin, a critic of Skandera and an opponent of Martinez’s administration.
Corwin revived accusations of cronyism and dishonesty against Skandera. He said in using $1.7 million from general obligations bonds approved by voters statewide to financially reward 88 select schools, Skandera had violated the public trust.
Skandera dismissed Corwin’s allegation as a political attack.
“We fulfilled the spirit of the law,” she said.
The bond money went to schools across the state for instructional materials, just as intended, she said.
But Corwin said the 88 schools rewarded were those that had done well in the state’s A-F grading program for school. The Legislature had declined to fund a rewards program, but Martinez and Skandera made an end run and did it anyway, Corwin said.
He also alleged that Skandera wired a department job for the wife of Keith Gardner, the governor’s chief of staff.
Skandera said she played no role in that hire, and said no manipulation had occurred to add a paycheck to the Gardner household.