New Mexico’s ousted public education secretary defends her performance

Karen Trujillo

Monday started off like any other day for Karen Trujillo.

She spoke to Santa Ana Pueblo leaders about education in the morning before making a stop in Albuquerque to support prospective educators working toward alternative teaching licenses.

Then she received a request to report to the Governor’s Office at 4 p.m., and she did. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was not there, but her chief operating officer, Teresa Casados, told Trujillo the administration wanted to go in a new direction with education and asked for her resignation, she said.

She refused and was fired.

“You work at the will of the governor, and that is her prerogative,” Trujillo said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “But I felt like we were making strides. I think it’s tragic to happen now. It’s about the kids in New Mexico, their education and what is best for them.

“Do I think this was the best thing for kids? No.”

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the former Cabinet secretary was “notified on many, many occasions by our office on her communication style, her management style. … I don’t believe it was a mystery to her.”

Trujillo’s removal surprised educators, administrators and lawmakers when the Governor’s Office announced it around 6 p.m. Monday. It’s rare for a governor to fire a Cabinet secretary so soon after the start of a four-year term, but Trujillo and Stelnicki said one sticking point might have been the state’s rollout of the voluntary K-5 Plus summer learning program, which offers 25 additional days of school for students in participating elementary schools.

Researchers say the program can lead to lasting academic benefits — but only if a child’s summer program teacher stays with the child through the next grade level. The state initially set aside about $120 million to get that program going in 211 schools this year and later announced it would spend $53 million of that this year for 25,000 students.

But Stelnicki said the Public Education Department ended up spending only $39.7 million this year, “well short of the $53 million target set by the former secretary.” The rest of that money can be applied to next year, he said. The Public Education Department said earlier this year it wants to enroll about 70,000 students in K-5 Plus programs next year.

State law requires districts to ensure K-5 Plus summer students will be in the classroom of the teacher they will have in the fall. That provision caught some district leaders off guard; they said they couldn’t force teachers to take part in the summer program without prior notice.

Given how little time had passed between the day in April when the governor signed the K-5 Plus bill into law and the deadline for districts to apply for program funds, Trujillo said, she had little leeway to get more districts to participate.

“We knew we couldn’t do this in four weeks,” she said. “We knew it was going to take a year to get people prepped for K-5 Plus. We were asking, ‘What can we do to turn this around by the summer of 2020?’ We knew we were going to leave a lot of money behind, but we didn’t have any power over that; we can’t force school districts to do things. It’s not mandatory.”

Stelnicki countered that it was Trujillo’s job to “get districts ready. Whose job is it to sell the program? To make it an evidence-based, successful program, it has to be implemented to the level that the Legislature funded it. K-5 Plus is just one example of the kind of execution issues that the governor felt was problematic to the point of requiring a change.”

Trujillo’s removal comes as the state continues to work to find a way to meet court-ordered mandates to provide more resources for certain groups of vulnerable students, including English-language learners, special-education students, Native American children and those who come from impoverished backgrounds.

State leaders invested an additional $480 million in public education for the coming school year, but lawyers for one set of plaintiffs in the court case, initiated in 2014, recently countered the state is still not doing enough to help those students.

Under Lujan Grisham and Trujillo, the state has received federal approval to make some changes to its plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The plan was initially drafted by former Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera under previous Gov. Susana Martinez. In the coming school year, the state education agency will come up with new systems of evaluating teachers, grading schools and testing students.

The state also plans to open a new early childhood education department in January to focus on services for infants and children up to age 5, including prekindergarten programs, as a way to better prepare kids for school.

Some education leaders voiced surprise and concern about Trujillo’s termination.

“We felt Karen was moving in a very positive direction,” said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders. “We had established a great rapport with her and her Cabinet. We were shocked by the turn of events here. You never know the ins and outs of these things, but I would give her a positive rating on a report card looking at her activity over the first six months.

“You hate to lose positive momentum in circumstances like this,” he added. “It’s unsettling to see that happen.”

Gloria Rendon, former executive director of the Coalition of Educational Leaders and a longtime educator who is still involved in public school projects, echoed Rounds’ sentiments, saying Trujillo “seemed to have a lot of support among schools and school personnel. From what I could see, it seems she was headed in the right direction with the state’s educational goals.

“It’s always difficult for districts when there is change at the top and when that change comes as quickly as it did,” she said.

State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said “everybody” was surprised by the news of Trujillo’s firing. “I had not heard there were any concerns or problems,” he said. “Certainly as I spoke with teachers and educators and administrators, everyone thought the [Public Education Department] was moving in the right direction and teachers were regaining confidence in the [department]. I think this has caught everyone off guard.”

The governor appointed Deputy Public Education Secretary Kara Bobroff to head the department on an interim basis.

Trujillo said she has full confidence in Bobroff and the other members of the department’s leadership team: Tim Hand, Katarina Sandoval and Gwen Perea Warniment.

“They are amazing people,” she said. “I believe in them 100 percent and they will continue to do good work.”

Trujillo said she plans to take a vacation and will then search for another job in education in New Mexico with a school district or university.

“I haven’t shed a tear,” she said. “I’ll continue to support education. I know I’ll land on my feet. Maybe I’ll end up back in the classroom. If that’s God’s plan, that’s what will be.”

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.