By Margaret Wright
— Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of the Public Education Department, might be facing yet another year in office with a hyphen tacked onto her title.
Last week, she sat through two full days of confirmation hearings and hours of testimony by educators, administrators, business leaders, and a few students and parents. At the end of the second day, Michael Corwin, a partisan private investigator, made a presentation chock full of allegations. Then the proceedings were put on hold by Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Albuquerque), chair of the Senate Rules Committee.
A Special Presentation
Investigator Corwin is known for his opposition research on behalf of former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. He heads a website called Independent Source PAC, a self-described venue for exposing “the hypocrisy and corruption of political candidates, office holders and interest groups.” In a news release issued in May, the state Republican Party reported that Corwin’s work is entirely funded by the union Communications Workers of America.
Over the objections of Republican legislators, Lopez allowed Corwin to testify for 20 minutes about a stack of documents he says prove that the Public Education Department under Skandera’s leadership has (among other wrongdoings) misallocated public school funds. Corwin also says the documents prove that Skandera’s actions present multiple conflicts of interest.
Corwin urged committee members to oppose Skandera’s confirmation. “We have two full years in office, and if these issues do not concern you, then you’re basically saying, I’m perfectly fine with this conduct.”
Although Lopez said she would set aside time if a Skandera supporter wanted to make their own special presentation, she turned down GOP senators’ requests to question Corwin, citing time constraints.
“We will make time next week during committee and set aside some specific time to have some questions,” said Lopez.
Lopez’ fellow committee member Sen. Sander Rue (R-Albuquerque) declined to comment about her handling of the proceedings, but Public Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens said it was unfair.
“Even though he is a known political operative, Mr. Corwin was given five times the amount of time offered to the general public,” Behrens said in an email. “The chair of the committee restrained Sec.-Designate Skandera’s supporters to a single, 3-minute testimony while Mr. Corwin was allowed to speak for two days straight. This action violated the chair’s own rules.”
Hurry Up and Wait
Whether the Public Education Department will have an opportunity to fully respond to Corwin’s presentation is yet to be seen. After failing to respond to repeated requests by the Compass for a hearing status update, Lopez ran into Rob Nikolewski of the New Mexico Watchdog yesterday. She said the next phase of Skandera’s hearing might be on the Senate Rules Committee agenda for Saturday, March 8, though sometime next week is more likely.
Behrens said Skandera’s office welcomes the opportunity to set the record straight. As proof of the positive impact of her tenure, he pointed to a 7 percent uptick in state high school graduation rates. The Education Department said 70.3 percent of seniors graduated last year, but these figures are controversial because the class of 2012 wasn’t subject to a high-stakes exit exam required of seniors the year before. Skandera’s office defended the results to the Santa Fe New Mexican, saying 70 percent of seniors from the class of 2013 already passed the exit test.
No matter how the political theater over Skandera’s confirmation continues to play out in the Roundhouse, the drawn-out proceedings and public critique of her work probably won’t amount to a change of course.
If the Senate Rules Committee doesn’t take any action, she stays on as secretary-designate. Otherwise, the committee simply recommends a yes or no vote to the full Senate. Even if Skandera is denied there, the governor can simply shift her into the position of deputy secretary and leave all of her job duties intact.
Still, the folks charged with implementing Skandera’s plans—public school teachers—continue to oppose her confirmation in large numbers.
Stephanie Ly, president of the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said Corwin’s presentation only bolstered the union’s case that Skandera is unfit for her position. “Her decisions have been based on corporations and private industries trying to come here and privatize public education.”
UPDATE, 5:20 p.m.: The Albuquerque Teachers Federation reports on their Facebook page that Skandera’s hearing is scheduled to resume tomorrow morning, Saturday, March 9, at 9:30 a.m. in Room 321 of the Roundhouse. Check back for further updates.