Confusion about education secretary's future with department spurs concerns

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Jun. 9—New Mexico Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus issued an email to staff early Tuesday announcing he planned to "re-retire due to health reasons."

The email mentioned a "future consulting role."

The missive, sent a day after the Governor's Office said Steinhaus would be cutting back on his duties but would remain in the Cabinet secretary position, caused concern and confusion this week among some staff members, lawmakers and education advocates.

One high-level employee in the department, who agreed to speak about Steinhaus on the condition of anonymity, said he reaffirmed his decision to leave in a staff Zoom meeting Tuesday — and indicated he would step down by Friday.

"He just said goodbye to everyone. And that was it," the employee said in an interview Wednesday. "We continued to be very confused because we have our directive that he's going to be gone. We're awaiting another replacement."

While a spokeswoman with the Public Education Department declined to provide an interview with Steinhaus, the department and the Governor's Office reiterated Wednesday he will remain in his position in a reduced capacity because of health issues.

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, wrote in a text message Steinhaus' email to staff was "unclearly worded." She added, "I apologize for any confusion caused."

The lack of certainty about Steinhaus' role at the Public Education Department comes as at least three other top officials, including two deputy secretaries, have left the agency.

That would mean just one deputy secretary would remain at the department, which oversees the state's 89 public school districts and dozens of charter schools and receives the largest individual share of the state's annual budget.

Former Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment left last week to take the director position at the Legislative Education Study Committee. Policy Director John Sena and analyst Tim Bedeaux are joining her. Former Deputy Secretary Katarina Sandoval left this month to work as chief operations officer for the city of Albuquerque.

In addition, Assistant Secretary of Indian Education Lashawna Tso, who took the role in late 2020, left her job in May to serve as the new executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, according to Indian Country Today. The Public Education Department website shows Deputy Director Rebecca Reyes is serving in the job in the interim.

Deputy Secretary Vickie Bannerman remains with the department.

Steinhaus, officially confirmed to the position by the state Senate in February, started in August 2021. He is the third education secretary to serve under Lujan Grisham.

Carolyn Graham, a spokeswoman for Public Education Department, confirmed in an email Wednesday Steinhaus is taking on a reduced but continued role "in developing policy," but said the details on what duties he will forgo have not been decided.

"The specifics of how his duties will be divided, as well as salary considerations, are still being determined," Graham wrote. "He remains dedicated to supporting students and has the utmost faith that no one at the PED will miss a beat."

Graham added Steinhaus "is not discussing the nature of his health issues and is not available for interview at this time."

On Monday, Hayden said Lujan Grisham will appoint a new deputy secretary to oversee some of Steinhaus' duties.

Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, a member of Legislative Education Study Committee, downplayed the situation involving Steinhaus.

"It's not a big change; it's a reorganization," she said. "It's a normal occurrence."

She spoke with Steinhaus on Monday, Stewart said, adding the department has plans to "elevate" existing staff to help take on daily tasks.

She was a little concerned about high-level staff leaving the Public Education Department, Stewart said, but she sees Warniment's move to Legislative Education Study Committee as a boon for the executive and legislative branches of state government.

The Senate Rules Committee, which is tasked with confirming Cabinet secretaries, has received no official notice from the Governor's Office about a new appointee for the position, said the committee chairman, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

It wouldn't be the first time a state department has altered its leadership design, he said, noting Dr. David Scrase oversees the Department of Health and the Human Services Department.

"We've had over the years different governors with different models about how they do things," Ivey-Soto said.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, voiced concerns, however, about the lack of clarity regarding Steinhaus.

"We are concerned about the recent reports regarding Dr. Steinhaus' health and the conflicting statements involving his continued service at PED," Baca said in a statement. "Dr. Steinhaus apparently informed his staff that he was retiring at the end of this week, but the Governor is now disputing that."

Baca added: "Given the dire state of our education system and the fact that school is set to resume in just two months, our educators and families need to know the status and condition of PED and its leadership."

Amanda Aragon, executive director of the education advocacy organization New Mexico Kids CAN, called the state of Steinhaus' employment "unclear" and concerning, particularly as schools continue to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We find the most valuable work the education department does is the work that happens over the summer," she said.

The state is dealing with federal reporting requirements and must compile standardized test results — a matter Aragon worries is further complicated by a new standardized test implemented this year.

"To know that we're going into that lack of clarity around who is in charge at the department, and a lack of executive team staff remaining in place, I am worried about the department's ability to execute that really important work," she said.

Aragon said Steinhaus has brought stability to the department, which hasn't seen anyone stay in the top job for longer than two years since Hanna Skandera was in the position under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Skandera was appointed to the spot in 2010 and remained through 2017. Through her tenure, a group of New Mexico parents and advocates filed the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit against the state, alleging it had failed to provide an adequate education to the majority of its students. In 2018, a district judge in Santa Fe ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

Christopher Ruszkowski served in the position from 2017 to 2019, before Lt. Gov. Howie Morales briefly took charge when Lujan Grisham stepped into office.

The late Karen Trujillo held the job for about six months before Lujan Grisham fired her and appointed Ryan Stewart, who resigned in August 2021 to care for his father.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez said he had received no notification about Steinhaus' status from the state but had heard about the secretary's reduced role.

Chavez said it's always a tough transition for districts when a Cabinet secretary or deputy secretary leaves. He reached out to Steinhaus this week, he added.

"I wished him the best of luck with his health. That should be everyone's top priority," Chavez said. "[This] does show ... no matter what position you're in, it takes a toll on your body. We have to make sure we're healthy and sound."

Daniel J. Chacon contributed to this report.