Karen Trujillo was “the champion for children of New Mexico,” longtime educator Stan Rounds said.
That’s because Trujillo dedicated herself to mentoring students, whether as a teacher, an administrator or even the head of the state’s Public Education Department.
Trujillo, who was superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools, died Thursday after she was struck by a vehicle while walking her dogs. She was 50.
Trujillo had held her post since September 2019. Prior to that, she was the education secretary for six months before being fired by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who cited a lack of progress in the state’s education initiatives.
Trujillo worked in a variety of roles at New Mexico State University from 2010-18, including a stint as the interim associate dean of research in the College of Education.
She also won a seat on the Doña Ana County Commission in 2018, holding the post for 27 days before she became education secretary.
Rounds met her while he was superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools through an education mentorship program and saw firsthand her dedication to enriching students’ lives.
“I was so impressed with her work on that,” said Rounds, now executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders. “She has this wonderful wealth of things she has done. She was one of the faces of what New Mexico education is and is meant to be.”
People who knew Trujillo said she was a tireless advocate for students, but she did it in a calm, thoughtful manner. Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said Trujillo was always trying to find innovative ways to improve the education system.
The two worked with a coalition of community leaders in Las Cruces that focused on trying to improve outcomes for children. They also were involved in NMSU’s Educators Rising New Mexico program, which focused on increasing the number of education majors across the state and supporting retention in the field.
In 2016, Trujillo established the STEM Outreach Alliance Research, which became the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center, and her prized accomplishment was creating the annual teacher shortage report.
“She wanted to try different things and find a better way of doing them,” Parr-Sanchez said.
Lujan Grisham released a statement Friday morning, saying Trujillo left behind an “unfinished legacy of credible service in New Mexico public education.”
Ryan Stewart, who succeeded Trujillo as head of the Public Education Department, echoed Rounds’ sentiment that she was a champion for children.
“Karen was a passionate and caring advocate for children and a genuinely warm and vibrant human being,” Stewart said.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García, a former public education secretary herself, remembers when Trujillo took the post in 2019 and welcomed the support García offered her.
“I was taken with how open and friendly and inviting she was,” García said.
Rounds said Trujillo’s steady leadership helped Las Cruces Public Schools navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and a cyberattack in October 2019 that crippled its digital system.
One of her last actions as superintendent was getting the school board’s approval for a hybrid-learning model that reopened schools at all grade levels.
The Las Cruces district also dealt with the deaths of several teachers and staff members from COVID-19 during the pandemic, including two in February.
“She walked into a whole lot of challenges and brought such a balanced, thoughtful image to the district,” Rounds said. “I thought she began to move the district forward. She got things focused on students and the community — what a void that is creating right now.”