Just six months after taking her Cabinet post, state Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo was removed Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
In a late-afternoon news release, the New Mexico governor was vague about her reasons for Trujillo’s ouster, other than to say “my expectations were not met in a number of areas.”
A nationwide search has begun, the statement said, while Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff heads the department on an interim basis.
“It is absolutely imperative that we genuinely transform public education in this state. We must identify a vibrant and ambitious new leader for the Public Education Department as quickly as we possibly can,” the governor said. “The well-being of New Mexico’s students, parents and educators remains the top priority of this administration.”
Around 8:30 p.m. Trujillo posted on social media.
"Goodbye NMPED. It was an honor to serve NM, even for a short time. We did amazing things in 6 months,” Trujillo wrote from her personal Twitter account. "The team will continue to do so because they are strong leaders. The Chief of Staff called me in this afternoon and told me they wanted to go in a new direction #inshock."
The secretary then also posted two heart emoji.
Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the decision was based on performance and no single action forced the governor’s hand.
“There was a question of leadership and quality communication within the organization. We just felt like it wasn’t a good fit,” Stelnicki said. “When the initiatives that the Legislature and advocates worked so hard for and that kids deserve aren’t being implemented at the rate or quality that the governor expects, then a change has to be made.”
The news comes as the state continues to deal with a court-ordered mandate to provide more resources for the education of at-risk public school students. As a result of the court decision, state leaders pumped an additional $480 million into the schools for this coming year.
The state’s schools are preparing for a new academic year filled with new programs and awaiting results of a new round of teacher evaluation ratings and standards-based assessments.
News of Trujillo’s departure stunned legislators and education leaders. While they didn’t see it coming, at least one expressed confidence the governor will find the right successor.
“We are completely reinventing public education in New Mexico as a result of the additional funding we have made available to the tune of almost a half-billion dollars, and Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico demand results,” said state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, a longtime member of the Senate Education Committee.
“I have all the faith in the governor that she is going to identify a Cabinet secretary for the Public Education Department who meets those standards and goals,” he added.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said while he does not know the reason behind “what looks to be a firing,” he said he had not seen a lot of momentum on the public education front since Trujillo took charge in late January.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who said she had to pause a phone interview with The New Mexican on Monday evening to take a call from Lujan Grisham, said she understood the governor’s decision and expects her to find a replacement quickly.
“She told me the department is just not stepping up to the programs that we passed, the projects and the money that we put on their desk,” Stewart said. “Our secretary of education, he or she has to be a good manager of staff, but they also have to pay attention to programs we put in place.”
Trujillo seemed to have the governor’s confidence through much of her first few months as she outlined a new era for the department — one suddenly flush with funding thanks to state government’s windfall of more than $1 billion from oil and gas revenues. The Legislature approved large raises for school employees, and a new system for evaluating schools is ready to launch.
Trujillo began her career in education as a teacher in Las Cruces and was an associate dean for research at New Mexico State University before she was appointed to Cabinet in January and confirmed by a 38-0 Senate vote.
At NMSU, Trujillo established an annual study of teacher and school employee vacancies around the state and led efforts to establish grass-roots programs to help the state grow its own teachers.
Upon taking the job at an annual salary of $128,000 — after which Cabinet secretaries received a bump to $150,000 effective this month — she said she planned to coordinate with the heads of other state agencies serving children to find a way to provide community services for children at risk of failing in school.
Trujillo collaborated with the governor in selecting the four deputy education secretaries and a special adviser, a so-called dream team that included longtime education administrators Bobroff, Tim Hand, Katarina Sandoval and Gwen Perea Warniment. In addition, the governor hired Pedro Noguera as a special adviser. All of those employees will remain in place, Stelnicki said.
When reached by phone Monday evening, Public Education Department chief of staff Daniel Manzano declined to comment.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said she was surprised by the departure and had not had any negative experiences working with Trujillo’s department.
“It’s a balancing act between ensuring compliance to what we’re being funded to do and also being customer-service oriented to a multitude of constituents,” said García, who was the state’s first state public education secretary under Gov. Bill Richardson from 2003-10.
“You have to listen to school boards and charter schools and unions and home school students and then synthesize that information into policy recommendations,” she said. “It can be a lot to handle.”
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said by phone Monday that he did not think Trujillo’s removal will impede movement on the public education front. He said it is any governor’s right to use executive power to fire Cabinet secretaries.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he said. “But she [Lujan Grisham] is still way behind President Trump’s track record as far as getting rid of department heads. Six months into his administration he got rid of half of his secretaries.”