Simonich: In Charge Of New Mexico Public Schools While Living In Philadelphia … A Touchy Subject

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart

By MILAN SIMONICH
msimonich@sfnewmexican.com

Living in Philadelphia is a touchy subject if you’re in charge of the public schools in New Mexico.

Ryan Stewart, Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department, upset more than a few politicians, parents and grandparents last year when he worked remotely from Philadelphia for several months.

Many wondered how he could guide New Mexico’s schools through a pandemic while he resided 1,900 miles away with his wife and son.

Stewart returned to New Mexico in August, but the time he was gone is still an issue for legislators of both political parties.

Democratic Sens. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque and George Muñoz of Gallup have introduced a bill to prohibit Cabinet secretaries from living out of state.

Stewart’s absence motivated the senators to file the bill, which received bipartisan support in its first hearing.

Candelaria, presenting the bill Friday in the Senate Rules Committee, said he cast no aspersions on Stewart, since nothing currently on the books requires state Cabinet secretaries to live in New Mexico.

But Candelaria also drew a parallel. Legislators must reside in the districts they represent. He considers that requirement a model for sound policy at the Cabinet level.

“There is an inherent value in ensuring that people making decisions about a community are part of the community — that they live in the community,” Candelaria said. “They are part of the struggles of that community. They understand the ethos of the community.”

The proposal by Muñoz and Candelaria, Senate Bill 357, would remove Cabinet secretaries from office if they failed to maintain residency in the state, or if they refused to file an affidavit attesting to their compliance with the law.

Members of the Rules Committee discussed the bill for only eight minutes before voting 7-1 to advance it.

Five Democrats and two Republicans voted for the bill. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, cast the dissenting vote.

Those who were troubled by Stewart’s absence shouldn’t be heartened by the committee’s decisive work.

The bill has no chance of becoming law based on the critique it received from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

“The proposal is unnecessary,” gubernatorial press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in the first sentence of a statement.

Then, incongruously, she stated the bill would receive “thorough consideration” from the governor if it cleared the Legislature.

In her statement, Sackett called Stewart’s months in Philadelphia a rare circumstance that was “necessary for his and his family’s well-being”.

She declined to elaborate, citing his privacy.

To be sure, Stewart is entitled to a life outside his government job. But Candelaria and Muñoz aren’t hardhearted fellows. They aren’t trying to embarrass a Cabinet member who was picked by a governor of their own party.

New Mexico residents who pay Stewart’s $156,000-a-year salary also are an empathetic lot.

But they had high expectations after Lujan Grisham held a news conference to hail Stewart’s appointment in August 2019. She said he was a first-rate educator who would deliver for New Mexico.

Stewart’s spokeswoman said he was busy with “education-related legislative priorities” and unavailable to be interviewed for this column.

But he took time to write a statement in which he criticized lawmakers for advancing the bill he inspired.

“Given the pressing nature of so many important issues before the legislature, it’s disappointing that this unnecessary legislation is taking up precious committee time that could be spent improving the lives of New Mexicans,” Stewart wrote.

In July, Stewart told my colleague, Dillon Mullan, he had spent most of the previous four months in Philadelphia with his wife and son.

Stewart’s statement to me contradicted that history.

“I have lived in New Mexico since my appointment and have visited over 70 schools in all regions of the state in the 18 months I have been on the job despite the impact of the pandemic,” Stewart wrote.

At once aggressive and defensive, Stewart probably knows the residency bill has no chance of becoming law.

Despite his complaints, he also knows scrutiny comes with public life. Schools receive the most money of any item in the state’s $7.4 billion budget. Beyond that, every governor talks about education being the ticket to success.

Muñoz and Candelaria didn’t waste anyone’s time with their proposal. They used it to send a message to Stewart and other executives about meeting basic responsibilities.

Their bill is filled with good sense, if not brotherly love.

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