Superintendent Veronica García isn’t turning the other cheek.

Just days after García and Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski sparred over his description of Santa Fe Public Schools as “a district in crisis” following the release of school grades that brought local schools’ struggles into stark relief, Garcia upped the ante — calling his comments “irresponsible” and suggesting they were based more on politics than education.

García on Monday said she believes the department is targeting her because of her advocacy — and critical comments she has made about the department — over the past two years.

“I think there’s been a pattern of, I speak out, I am investigated, it creates a cloud, and then it dies out, and then I speak out again and it comes again,” said García, who headed the education department during the Democratic administration of Gov. Bill Richardson.

The department released its annual report on school grades Friday, with more than half of Santa Fe’s schools getting D’s or F’s. Although he did not cite García by name, Ruszkowski said when district schools fare poorly, “You have to look at the superintendent.”

García, who recently accepted an extension of her contract into the summer of 2020, said that such comments “cause turmoil in the community and get people thinking we are a district in crisis. We are not.”

Ruszkowski, in response, said in an email Monday: “The leadership of Santa Fe Public Schools should be asking themselves why the Gadsden Independent School District — which has about the same number of students and schools and a higher percentages of students from low-income backgrounds — is earning better school grades than Santa Fe Public Schools.”

Just 21 percent of Gadsden’s schools received a D or an F in last week’s grading report.

García said Ruszkowski’s comments amount to a “complete about-face” from a department report on academic proficiency released last month. That report lumped Santa Fe in with Albuquerque Public Schools, Clovis, Deming and others as districts that are “starting to show meaningful academic progress … and will continue on an upward trajectory if we as a state ensure consistency for them.”

While student scores in both reading and math did rise slightly this past year, just 29 percent of the district’s students are proficient in reading and only 17.6 percent are proficient in math. Statewide, those figures are 31.1 percent for reading and 21.6 percent for math. And the district’s graduation rate is 69 percent, 2 percentage points below the state average.

This is not the first time the Public Education Department and García have gone at it. In March 2017, she and the Santa Fe Board of Education agreed to close schools for a half-day so students and staff had the opportunity to protest proposed cuts to public education funding. A rally at the Roundhouse drew 1,500 people.

Shortly thereafter, former Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera publicly rebuked García and suggested she violated state statutes in supporting the action. The education department launched an investigation and Skandera asked García to conduct her own investigation into whether principals were mandating teachers’ attendance at the rally.

That conflict quietly dissipated later in the year.

But last summer García appeared as a key witness for the plaintiffs in a long-fought court battle questioning whether New Mexico invests enough in its public education system to provide an “equitable” education for all students. She testified the state was graduating students ill prepared for college or a career and that many seniors were not proficient in math or reading.

Judge Sarah Singleton in July ruled the state is not providing sufficient funding for its students and gave the state’s political leaders until next spring to come up with a solution. Ruszkowski, who has led the department since Skandera’s departure in the summer of 2017, said the state plans to appeal the decision.

School board President Steven Carrillo stopped short of calling Ruszkowski’s comments political, but said the tone of the secretary’s comments was “inappropriate in the way that he personally attacked Dr. García.”

Nevertheless, Carrillo said that despite his misgivings about the the A-F school grading system, “I share the PED’s concerns about our proficiency scores. … I would not say we are a district in crisis. We know where our challenges are and we are going to meet those challenges.”

Board Vice President Maureen Cashmon said the department is sending mixed signals, given its more positive assessment in the July report.

“One minute we are on the right track and should see improvement,” she said, “and the next minute they are questioning superintendent’s leadership skills.”

The school grading system, which the state initiated in school year 2012-13, incorporates a complex range of factors, including standardized test scores, attendance, graduation rates and parents’ involvement in a school.

But explaining the formula has been a challenge. In 2013, a group of retired Los Alamos physicists analyzed the system and said it is so complex that it would take a rocket scientist to understand it.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.