Hanna Skandera vs. Senator Molasses was a waste of time; if we had bold change, Sen. Howie Morales would get reins of public education
THE WEEKEND COLUMN
More than 30 years ago, Tooley was trying to stop casinos from being legalized in Colorado. Proponents had done a sloppy job of gathering valid signatures to put their gambling initiative on the ballot, but Tooley declined to challenge their petitions in court.
“I don’t want the sideshow to overtake the circus,” he said.
New Mexico state Sen. Linda Lopez, right, showed no such wisdom in dealing with one of her adversaries, Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of public education.
Lopez, D-Albuquerque, waited more than two years before calling Skandera this winter for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee. Then Lopez changed typical procedures of the committee that she chairs, turning Skandera’s case into a three-ring spectacle.
Hearings typically are handled in a day, even for the most controversial nominees for high positions in state government. But when it came to Skandera, Lopez threw away the clock and the calendar.
Instead, Lopez yet again extended Skandera’s hearing, turning it into an interminable mess by accepting as evidence a thick report from a political organization that is an enemy of Skandera and of her boss, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
Lopez, who should be known as Senator Molasses, said the committee needed numerous records related to allegations that Skandera misdirected state money to select schools and used her computer technicians to compile email lists of teachers for Republican political campaigns.
Many senators knew all about these charges, and some raised them when questioning Skandera. The delay Lopez authorized was another sideshow.
Skandera deserved a thorough interrogation. She is in a marquee job, and her expertise, decisions and qualifications are in doubt.
Skandera, 39, actually invited scrutiny by telling the Senate committee that she had worked in education for 20 years. Either her math or her memory needs improvement.
But in grilling Skandera, the Rules Committee proved itself inconsistent. It almost never takes a hard look at nominees for boards, commissions and cabinet positions. It went to the other extreme with Skandera, who took all the heat that so many other nominees should have been subjected to but were not.
Blake Curtis, a former Republican legislator, sailed through the committee this winter on his nomination by Martinez for the New Mexico Finance Authority Board. Curtis was part of the slumbering NMFA executive tier that allowed a fraudulent audit to pass right under its collective nose last year.
Then there was Kari Mitchell, nominated by Martinez for the New Mexico State University Board of Regents. Mitchell was part of the secretive power structure last fall that gave then-NMSU president Barbara Couture a $453,000 payoff in return for Couture's resignation.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, was the only Rules Committee member to ask Mitchell hard questions. Even with his diligence, the Senate yawned. Mitchell deserved the third degree, but the Senate confirmed her to a six-year term as a university regent.
Given this history, it is easy to feel a little sorry for Skandera.
Senators failed the public by not voting in timely fashion on whether she stays or goes. They had ample evidence about Skandera’s performance and no need to elongate the process.
For me, one decision by Skandera stood out as the most troubling.
She implemented a teacher evaluation program tied to standardized test scores of students. This occurred after Skandera tried but failed to persuade the Legislature to approve the evaluation system.
Her act of insolence showed Skandera's unwillingness to work with others in state government.
It is too bad that politics has everything to do with who runs the public school system. If Martinez wanted excellence, she would drop Skandera and hire the one person who could heal all the wounds and move the state forward in a flash.
That would be state Sen. Howie Morales, right, of Silver City. He knows education policy inside and out. More important, Morales inspires people. Skandera polarizes them.
Other state senators told me that Morales, 40, would be a superb education secretary, but his selection was politically impossible.
“Wrong party,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, referring to the fact Morales is a Democrat.
True enough. Martinez would never ask Morales to take over the education department, despite her slogan of “bold change.” Morales, a smart man and never a yes man, probably could not work for her anyway.
That is the sad state of public education in New Mexico. We need someone as gifted as Morales to lead the way. Instead, we got Skandera and Lopez, archenemies in a circus act.