New Mexico Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera says Santa Fe Public Schools might have violated state law by using taxpayer money for political activity when the district shut down campuses for half a day last week and descended en masse on the Roundhouse to protest proposed funding cuts for public schools.
Skandera said the state agency will investigate complaints about the March 16 rally, which drew to the Capitol more than 1,500 parents, teachers and students armed with letters and postcards asking Gov. Susana Martinez to spare education from the chopping block. The school district had used half a snow day to give supporters a chance to attend the event.
“Your actions appear to violate a number of statutory provisions,” Skandera wrote Thursday in a letter to district Superintendent Veronica García.
The letter listed questionable activities associated with what the district had dubbed a successful “snow day for action,” including using the district’s website to organize the event, using email lists, a “robocall” phone system and school intercoms to broadcast the plan, and paying employees to take part in activities outside the scope of their contracts.
But García said she is confident that she and her staff followed the letter of the law.
The rally could not be construed as political, García said in an interview Thursday, because “political, to me, is partisan, and I think people advocate for their school districts every single day.”
School leaders, educators and other public school supporters from around the state showed up at the Capitol every day during the 60-day legislative session to urge lawmakers not to make more cuts in education spending, García said, adding that the “snow day of action” was no different.
School board member Steven Carrillo, who first suggested during a school board meeting that the district cancel classes for a day of activism, referred questions about Skandera’s letter to García.
Throughout the session, lawmakers said both public education and higher education should brace for financial hits.
While the $6.1 billion budget approved by both houses of the Legislature does include a 1 percent cut for higher education, public schools would get an additional $13.3 million under the spending plan. A tax package needed to balance the budget calls for some $350 million in increased taxes and fees, however, and Martinez has vowed to veto it. She has said she will call the Legislature back for a special session to craft a new budget that doesn’t raise taxes.
García said she is not surprised by the Public Education Department’s response to the school district’s rally but was disheartened that Skandera’s staff chose to notify the media about the pending investigation before sending a notice to her.
Skandera “has positive intentions,” said García, who served as New Mexico’s first education secretary under former Gov. Bill Richardson. “I hope it wasn’t politically motivated.”
Midway through the legislative session, as lawmakers wrangled with the realities of a reduced budget for the coming fiscal year and debated ways to raise new revenues, García said Santa Fe Public Schools could face cuts of up to $5.5 million. She warned of cost-cutting measures such as layoffs, increased classroom sizes and up to 15 fewer school days in the calendar.
Early last week, the school district began contemplating an idea to close schools under the district’s snow day provision to lobby the Legislature and the governor for their cause. García settled on canceling classes for a half-day and scheduling an afternoon demonstration.
At the time, district spokesman Jeff Gephart said school officials were not specifically requesting that teachers and parents speak on behalf of Santa Fe Public Schools. “We are not asking anybody to support the school district opinion,” he said in an email. “We ask that each individual express his or her opinion regardless if that matches our stance.”
But Skandera’s letter said the state agency received complaints from students about classroom activities encouraging them to write letters in support of the rally. And at least one principal of a Santa Fe school — who was not named in the letter — reportedly told all teachers they were required to attend the rally, Skandera said.
Skandera also said she will notify the state auditor and attorney general of her concerns.
García said she will comply with Skandera’s request to investigate the claims and will release the results to the education department and the public within 30 days.
“We will provide them with a very thorough response to their allegations,” García said.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.