Updated: July 21, 2020 09:40 AM
Created: July 20, 2020 06:00 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The uncertainty of what exactly the start of the Fall semester will look like for New Mexico’s students is causing parents, teachers and students great anxiety. The COVID-19 crisis has created a crisis in our education system leaving state and local education leaders trying to find the balance of sufficiently educating the state’s youth and doing it a way that is healthy, safe and mitigates the risk of transmitting the virus.
The KOB 4 Investigates Team learned the state’s top education leader, Public Education Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Stewart has been managing the crisis from 2,000 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“I think that is a problem,” said State Rep. Rod Montoya, (R- San Juan County). “I think the average New Mexican would think that is a problem. Decisions are made about their children's education and the secretary doesn't live in New Mexico and I think that is very problematic.”
Secretary Stewart took the top education job in New Mexico in August 2019 after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham fired his predecessor Karen Trujillo. Stewart moved to Santa Fe the following month, but admitted that he routinely and frequently left New Mexico to be with wife and son who remained in Philadelphia. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Stewart moved back to Philadelphia on a full time basis and has managed New Mexico’s Public Education Department from there since.
“If you are going to be an employee of the State of New Mexico, you would think you'd reside here and that is simple common sense,” said Rep. Montoya.
Quietly, some in the education field have wondered about the effectiveness of managing not only a large and complex agency from afar, but one that is in peril from the effects of COVID-19.
“If he wants to be our cabinet secretary he needs to spend time in our state,” said Las Cruces teacher Brandi Polanco, who is also a republican running for the state legislature. “He needs to start putting interest into our local schools and districts. He needs to find out what makes each of our districts different.”
Polanco told KOB 4 she worries that Sec. Stewart is denying himself the ability to fully understand the needs of New Mexico’s many diverse communities by managing from afar.
After weeks of emails and calls with PED administration and the governor’s office, Sec. Stewart agreed to an interview, where he joined via Zoom from his home in Philadelphia.
“Do you and your family have a timeline on when you would all be living in New Mexico on a full time basis?,” 4 Investigator Chris Ramirez asked.
“COVID-19 has thrown a lot of things up in the air,” Sec. Stewart answered. “We were really on a track to get there and had hoped to already be there. We have a lot more uncertainty now as we figure out the tricks of moving in a global pandemic. There are still a lot of things we need to figure out.”
Sec. Stewart explained he accepted the job in New Mexico just before his son started the school year. He and his wife decided she and their son would remain in Philadelphia while he commuted between the desert southwest and the east coast often, balancing the needs of his family with those of his work.
“When I came [to Santa Fe], first I was living with some family friends so I could find a place for the first weeks I was there and I found a great little apartment near St. Michael's High School. During the pre-COVID months, I was there living in that apartment. I would basically go back to Philadelphia about every other weekend or so, which has been one of the more challenging things I've ever done.”
KOB 4 asked why his family did not relocate to New Mexico when he started the job.
“It was really a timing issue. It happened right at the beginning of the school year, I had to get out there, relocate and find a place to live. My wife was going to have to find a new job, we didn't want to be too disruptive for our son. For all of those reasons, we really planned on finishing out the year [in Philadelphia].”
But when the COVID-19 crisis hit the country, forcing school to shut down and the PED offices in Santa Fe to close, Sec. Stewart said he was faced with the decision to manage the PED alone from his apartment living room in Santa Fe or with his family in Philadelphia. While Sec. Stewart doesn’t have an exact timeline on when he will be back in New Mexico, KOB 4 asked if he plans on returning in time to oversee the re-entry plans school districts are implementing, with PED’s guidance.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Sec. Stewart said. “I look forward to being back, working with our educators on the ground and our PED staff.”
Sec. Stewart added, in the months prior to the COVID closures, he did travel the state often meeting with education leaders and students.
KOB 4 requested an interview with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on this issue, but her spokesperson said she can't "swing it right now."
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