Commentary: With the exception of Tourism, there was not one department during the eight-year term of former Gov. Susana Martinez that could have been described as smooth-running and successful.
The Human Services Department dismantled the state’s mental healthcare system based on a faulty audit. The Children Youth and Families Department was unable to prevent horrific child abuse deaths, despite warnings ahead of time. Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla left office under the cloud of criminal charges of embezzlement.
But for all of that dysfunction and bad governance, no department was as bogged down in constant controversy as the Public Education Department under former Secretary Hannah Skandera. She was determined to impose reforms based on the increased use of high-stakes tests; high stakes for the teachers and the schools, but not for the students. The Legislature was just as determined to stop those reforms. Education for our kids languished as the adults fought it out.
Caught in the middle of that mess for eight years were the men and women who work for the Public Education Department. The few I met when I covered state government in Santa Fe were incredibly bright and seriously committed to the task of making our schools better.
I am certain that they were more than looking forward to calmer waters and a little stability under new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Unfortunately, that’s not what that they got.
Less than six months after naming Karen Trujillo to lead the department, Lujan Grisham decided to fire her. And I’m not sure why.
It wasn’t tied to the lousy test scores that were just announced, her office said. Trujillo could hardly be held responsible for tests taken before she took office.
“Expectations were not met in a number of areas,” the governor told the Sun-News. “There were management, communication and organization issues,” added spokesman Tripp Steinciki.
Trujillo said her firing, “definitely came as a surprise to me and the whole leadership team.” She said she felt they were “moving in a good direction.” She added, however, that she never had direct communications with the governor, only with her staff.
Like everybody else on the outside looking in, I don’t know what really happened.
But here’s what I do know. Karen Trujillo has been successful in every position she’s held before this one.
Her management skills weren’t a problem when she was elected chairman of the County Commission. Her communication skills were just fine when she was interim dean of research for the College of Education at NMSU. There were no issues with organization when she was principal of Las Cruces Catholic Schools.
Nothing is more important for the new administration than education. Not only is it a moral imperative, the state is under a legal court order to bring our schools up to a level of adequacy. In response, Lujan Grisham has called for a “moonshot” on education, and the Legislature has provided the funding to make that happen.
But it’s going to take more than money. Bringing New Mexico students up from the bottom of national rankings where they have languished for decades will also require leadership and vision. And, a level of personal commitment beyond what the governor has demonstrated thus far, if Trujillo’s account of their lack of communication is accurate.
This was a bad stumble coming out of the gate on an issue where we can’t afford to fall behind any further. We didn’t get to the moon by putting a new person in charge every six months. The governor needs to devote her full attention to getting this right.
Walt Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org