State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has asked the attorney general to weigh in with an opinion on some of the actions of Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera.
Lopez chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which held three confirmation hearings on Skandera during the past legislative session without taking any action. Lopez has said the committee still has a lot of questions about some of Skandera’s decisions.
Skandera, hired as secretary of the Public Education Department by Gov. Susana Martinez more than two years ago, has continued to take heat for many of her reforms, including a pilot teacher-evaluation system, a new A-F school-grading system and efforts to mandate a reading intervention/retention program for third-graders who can’t read to grade level.
Lopez’s letter asks the attorney general to look into whether Skandera violated the New Mexico Charter Schools Act by allowing the Farmington Municipal School District to contract with K12 Inc., a national for-profit company, to provide administrative, technological and educational services to the New Mexico Virtual Academy. The Farmington-based charter school is the state’s first online educational institute.
Lopez also wants the attorney general to determine whether the agreement between New Mexico Virtual Academy and K12 Inc. violates the four-year maximum term for contracts under the state procurement code. The contract — which Lopez provided with the letter to the attorney general — sets an initial term of 10 years, with seven-year renewal periods. Each party can terminate the agreement with two years’ notice.
The Public Education Department acknowledged last year that it had violated some procurement code policies with other contractors — starting work on one contracted job without having a signed contract in place, for instance. During the confirmation hearings, Skandera said her staff had worked to correct those problems.
Skandera emphasized earlier this month that the Farmington school district — not the state — approved the K12 Inc. contract and did not seek input from the Public Education Department.
Lopez also is asking the attorney general for an opinion on whether Skandera followed state law in redirecting about $1.7 million in 2010 general obligation bonds designated for books and materials to reward some of the state’s top-rated schools.
The department has maintained that it acted within state law by using the funds to reward A-rated schools and schools whose ratings had jumped by at least two grade levels in six months because the money is still being used for instructional materials.
Lopez also wants to know if the attorney general is investigating Skandera for ordering some department staff to compile a list of teacher email addresses that was given to Jay McCleskey, a top political adviser to the governor. Critics have charged that the department made the list specifically for McCleskey and that it violates the state’s Governmental Conduct Act, which prohibits using state personnel and resources for any political purpose.
Skandera said during the confirmation hearing that while she did ask her staff to create such a list, it was so the department could stay in touch with teachers around the state and send them the department’s newsletter. She said the department turned over the list to McCleskey after he put in a public-records request for the information.
Department spokesman Larry Behrens said via email Wednesday that if Lopez were concerned about these issues, she should have questioned Skandera about them during the roughly 10 hours of confirmation hearings. While Lopez did not question Skandera, some members of the Senate Rules Committee, including Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, did grill her on the New Mexico Virtual Academy contract and the teacher email list.
Lopez was one of several lawmakers who publicly declared support for House Bill 460, introduced by Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, which would prohibit charter schools from contracting with private, out-of-state corporations for administrative or educational services. That bill made it through both the House and the Senate, but Stewart said last week that she doesn’t think it has a “snowball’s chance in hell” of being signed by Gov. Martinez.
Lopez did not return a call seeking comment on the letter.
Phil Sisneros, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email Wednesday that he could not confirm whether Lopez’s letter had arrived. But he said his office will review all the materials and respond to Lopez as soon as possible.
State lawmakers may ask the attorney general for an opinion, but these opinions do not carry any force of law.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or email@example.com.