State lawmakers and top school officials on Thursday raised sharp criticisms of the New Mexico Public Education Department’s leadership as districts navigate the challenges of reopening elementary schools to students using a hybrid model amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Several members of the Legislative Finance Committee castigated the state agency for what they called an overreach of its authority when it came to creating and abruptly changing stringent guidelines districts must follow to open schools through the hybrid approach, which combines in-classroom instruction with remote learning from home. Some even suggested stripping power from the department and letting school administrators have a greater voice in the process.
Much of the concern centered on Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, who was not present for the legislative hearing on the state’s efforts to comply with a judge’s ruling in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, which called for heavier investments in resources to help certain groups of students overcome achievement gaps.
Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, called Stewart an “absent secretary,” noting he was living in Philadelphia in the spring and summer, when crucial decisions were being made about how education would be carried out during the 2020-21 school year.
“You still have to be on the ground here making some of these decisions,” Sanchez said. “That doesn’t mean top-down, but working with superintendents and working with the different associations and the school teachers to get things done, because who’s being hurt here are the students.”
Lawmakers on the committee also received copies of a letter the New Mexico School Superintendents Association had sent to Stewart last month, outlining issues with how the department was handling reopening protocols. The letter sought a more collaborative effort with superintendents.
Stewart did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. The Governor’s Office declined to comment, instead referring questions to Stewart.
Stewart appeared in a news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that was broadcast live on Facebook on Thursday afternoon. The talk focused on efforts to reopen schools while the pandemic continues to pose risks.
Association President Dennis Roch, superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools, wrote in the letter to Stewart that successful reopening plans are unlikely until there is a balance between the “efficacy of educational practice” and pandemic-related safety guidelines.
The letter said the department’s requirements and the realities districts face while trying to implement them often collide.
Smaller districts often cannot comply with mandates to reconfigure HVAC systems within a day’s notice, the letter said. It also noted changes to the guidelines have led to confusion and frustration among administrators, such as an unexpected requirement for weekly coronavirus testing of 5 percent of a district’s staff and teachers.
“We assert that the recognition and the collaboration with the superintendents in New Mexico continues to be the best course of action in these unprecedented times,” Roch wrote. “We are surprised that the Executive has placed such little value in our expertise and practitioner knowledge.”
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said the letter was designed to show how tired and overworked many administrators feel as they try to comply with the department’s rules. García, who was the Public Education Department’s first Cabinet secretary under the Richardson administration, suggested the formation of a steering committee, in which certain superintendents would work with state leaders to streamline processes, might be more effective.
“I think that’s what they’re asking for,” García said. “Can we collaborate? Can we work together to make it better for them and for us?”
Stan Rounds, executive director of the superintendents association, told legislators Roswell Independent Schools had purchased face shields over the summer for students and employees that later were rendered unusable when the Public Education Department mandated in September that cloth face masks be worn by everyone on campus. Initial guidelines allowed districts to use face shields or face masks.
“They’re just sitting in boxes,” Rounds said of the shields.
Arsenio Romero, superintendent of Deming Public Schools, said he had to develop the district’s school calendar three times in a six-month period.
This raised the ire of Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell.
“That is normally a one-year task; he had to do it three times,” Anderson said. “Do you think that was met with flexibility at the PED?”
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, suggested legislators set up a committee to help make some decisions about education, stripping some of the authority from the department. He was not confident, he added, that the agency’s “top-down” approach was effective.
“Why don’t you take some of that power from the PED and give it to school districts and superintendents so you can take control of your children and your classroom?” Muñoz said.
Romero and Rounds also presented a proposal Thursday for how the state could achieve compliance with the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez ruling, which spurred steep increases in state education spending, especially when it comes to low-income kids, special-education students, Native American students and English-language learners.
A key component of the proposal would address public schools’ immediate needs in their operational budgets due to expenses related to the pandemic.
They also pointed out the Public Education Department and the plaintiffs’ legal counsel have found common ground on some remedies, such as improving the quality of teachers, retaining teachers and supporting at-risk students.
Both remote- and hybrid-learning models likely will exacerbate the achievement gap for at-risk students, the proposal warned.
It suggested additional instructional time through state programs such as K-5 Plus, which gives elementary school children 25 days of learning time ahead of the regular school year, and Extended Learning, which adds 10 days of instruction for students, could help mitigate those effects.