Senators postpone vote on NM education secretary

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Senate's top Republican leader complained Saturday that politics had become a driving force behind a lengthy confirmation hearing for Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, who is awaiting a vote by lawmakers with no guarantee it will happen before the Legislature ends.

The Senate Rules Committee spent three hours questioning Skandera on Saturday and listened to seven hours of public testimony a week ago. But there was no vote by the committee and chairwoman Linda Lopez said it was uncertain when the panel would again consider Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's choice to run the Public Education Department. The Legislature adjourns in a week.

Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said after the hearing that the confirmation proceedings had become a "dog and pony show trying to make somebody look bad."

He confidently predicted that Skandera would win confirmation if her nomination reached the 42-member Senate, where Democrats hold a 25-17 advantage.

The Senate last rejected a cabinet secretary in 1997, when Republican Gov. Gary Johnson was in office.

However, it's possible that Skandera could continue to languish without a vote by the committee on whether to recommend her confirmation to the Senate. If no vote happens, Skandera will remain in the job she's held for two years.

Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, dismissed suggestions that the hearing had become a political spectacle.

"I think it's fair that we can ask her the questions since she's been head of the department," said Lopez.

If the Senate rejects Skandera, she will be ousted from her post but that's unlikely to change the governor's educational policies.

Many Democrats and educational unions object to the top policies advocated by the Martinez administration, including merit pay for teachers, a system for assigning grades of A-to-F for schools, a teacher evaluation system linked to student performance on standardized tests and a plan to hold back third-graders who can't read proficiently.

Sen. Sander Rue, an Albuquerque Republican and committee member, said a confirmation hearing traditionally focuses on a nominee's work history and whether they are qualified to assume a government job.

"Because we did not have a confirmation hearing two years ago, that train left the station a long time ago. This confirmation, in my opinion, has degenerated into a job performance evaluation," said Rue.

Several Democratic senators sharply questioned Skandera about her decision to overrule the state Public Education Commission and allow a new all-online charter school to open in the fall. Another statewide online charter school opened last year and was authorized by the Farmington school district.

Critics object to the online schools hiring out-of-state, for-profit companies for their classes and other services.

State law prohibits charter schools, which are public schools financed with taxpayer money, to contract with for-profit companies to manage the school. However, Sens. Gerald Ortiz y Pino and Daniel Ivey-Soto, both Albuquerque Democrats, suggested the law hadn't been followed,

"We're dealing with public dollars here," said Ivey-Soto.

Skandera said the companies weren't managing the schools but were providing instructional materials and strategies. She said so-called virtual schools "could be a game changer in our state" because they could offer a broader curriculum to students, particularly than can be provided in many rural areas of New Mexico.

Freshman Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants expressed frustration about the focus of Saturday's questioning.

"We have been here almost two hours and not talked about the children at all," he said at one point in the hearing. "It's sad."