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.”

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