Sunday, June 4, 2023
Triple Spaced Again

Reinventing the state school board


Something we New Mexicans are not good at: electing officials for certain powerful statewide commissions. Our track record is abysmal. We have elected people who have disappointed us over and over.

So it’s curious that legislators tried to reinvent the State Board of Education, the one we got rid of. Today we have a cabinet secretary appointed by the governor, the result of years of frustration with that previous structure. Senate Joint Resolution 1 attempted to recreate something that looks very much like that old board. The resolution passed the Senate almost unanimously but missed final passage in the House.

It would have been a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024.

The new board would take us back before 2003.

We had a state school board, with 10 members elected by district. Most New Mexicans had no idea what the board did. The job did not attract exciting candidates.

Since we were dissatisfied with this board’s performance, we amended the state constitution to add five members appointed by the governor. But that didn’t solve the problem. We editorialized thunderously that the board had no accountability for results, so in 2003 we amended the constitution again and abolished the whole structure, replacing it with the current Public Education Department and a cabinet secretary appointed by the governor. So we could hold the governor accountable, we said. But we’re still frustrated by our poor progress in improving education.

Under the old structure, we had a State Superintendent of Public Instruction appointed by that board. Those superintendents were competent professionals, some of whom stayed around for years.

Under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham the office door of the secretary of education has been revolving so fast our heads are spinning. Maybe this is why legislators want to go back to the old system. However, that was not happening under our previous governor, whose appointee, the infamous Hanna Skandera, stayed from 2011 to 2017, with most of the education establishment rebelling against her the entire time.

Here’s an option the legislators are not talking about, and perhaps have not thought of. Focus not on the boards or commissions but on the executives they hire. Amend the law so certain cabinet secretaries and other top managers cannot be fired automatically when a new governor takes office.

For comparison: New Mexico had a famous state engineer named Steve Reynolds who served, astonishingly, from 1955 until his death in 1990. When Reynolds started, governors’ terms were two years. He had to be reappointed and confirmed every term, and he was.

Reynolds’ policies were not without controversy, but he was unquestionably an expert. In evaluating his tenure, perhaps we can consider not whether he was good or bad, but whether the consistent leadership of a critical state agency was better for the state than revolving-door changes of leaders. When I was a state employee, I saw firsthand that every change of agency head disrupts progress, wastes money and often spurs the most knowledgeable and competent employees to leave.

This approach was tried by the 1990 workers' compensation task force. It tried to create politics-free leadership by giving the director of the Workers' Compensation Administration a five-year term. That lasted for one term, with director Jerry Stuyvesant, an internationally recognized expert. Since then, every governor has ignored the law. Directors have not been experts, have resigned when the governor’s term ended, and have never been asked to stay on.

Suppose we were to enact a law that new governors cannot fire certain cabinet secretaries during their first year in office. That might be a wacky idea, but we have tried everything else.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through





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