Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s controversial secretary-designate of public education, will remain in office for a full four-year term without ever being confirmed by the state Senate.
Skandera’s confirmation bogged down Monday in the Senate Rules Committee because of a largely partisan divide. Three motions to send her nomination to the full 42-member Senate all failed.
The bottleneck in committee means that Skandera, though not confirmed by the Senate, maintains her full powers and her $125,000-a-year salary.
Skandera said she was disappointed that she was not confirmed because the “circus” surrounding her employment has become a topic in national circles of school administrators.
Skandera, 40, is the public face of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s education initiatives, and she has been a magnet for criticism from thousands of teachers and by teachers’ unions.
After the hearing, Skandera said it appeared to her that Democrats on the Rules Committee had caucused ahead of time and devised a plan to stop her nomination from moving forward. Democrats, though, said there was no organized attempt to keep Skandera’s nomination bottled up.
“I was trying to bring it to the floor. I’m a pretty independent person,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.
Sanchez said he still did not know if he would have backed Skandera or opposed her in a floor vote.
Democrats control the Rules Committee, 6-4, and they stuck together to defeat a motion by Republicans to advance Skandera’s nomination to the full Senate with a positive recommendation.
Then Sanchez moved that Skandera be rejected as education secretary. Nobody seconded the idea, an indication that the Democratic majority realized it might not have had enough votes on the Senate floor to fire Skandera.
A third motion to send Skandera’s nomination to the full Senate without any recommendation ended in 5-5 tie. Sanchez voted with the four Republican members to advance her nomination on a neutral basis. The rest of Democrats opposed that proposal.
Sen. Linda Lopez, a candidate for governor and the chairwoman of the Rules Committee, announced that all options to forward Skandera’s nomination to the full Senate had been exhausted. With that, Lopez said Skandera’s hearing was over.
It marked the first time this session that the Rules Committee voted on a candidate for a Cabinet seat or high-level commission without sending the nominee to the full Senate for consideration.
Skandera and a cadre of her supporters left the committee room, many of them puzzled by what had happened. But Republicans on the Rules Committee mostly were satisfied with the outcome.
“This is a victory,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque. “She’s still in office, carrying out the governor’s reforms.”
Moores said a floor debate on Skandera probably would have taken many hours because most senators would have wanted to speak on her strengths, weaknesses and fitness to oversee the state’s 830 public schools.
“People in my district think she’s been persecuted enough already,” Moores said.
The opposite view came from Democratic Sen. Michael Sanchez, the majority leader from Belen and a Rules Committee member.
“My position is no secret. The secretary-designate is not qualified under the constitution,” Michael Sanchez said.
Never a classroom teacher or a school principal, Skandera does not meet the minimum standard to oversee public education in New Mexico, he said.
Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said he would have voted to reject Skandera as education secretary had the committee given him the opportunity.
Morales, a candidate for governor, said he soured on Skandera when she unilaterally implemented a teacher evaluation system tied to students’ scores on standardized tests. "The Legislature did not approve a law giving Skandera the teacher evaluation program she wanted, but she ignored that fact and proceeded on her own,” Morales said.
Skandera said she acted without the Legislature’s support because “we can’t wait” to implement reforms.
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, is a supporter of Skandera who wanted her nomination to be heard by the full Senate.
“I think it would have been a great debate to have on the floor. The full body should be engaged in confirmations,” Rue said.
But, he said, there was little appetite for a daylong floor fight on Skandera, given that the $6.2 billion state budget remains unresolved.