New Mexico school districts seeking local superintendents

James Barron, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·6 min read

Apr. 11—It's springtime, which means it's the season for school superintendent searches around New Mexico.

And the trend in these hunts for the past few years is unmistakable: Grow local, go local.

Joe Guillen, executive director of the New Mexico School Board Association, said he's often asked to post vacancies for districts about their open superintendent positions.

The requests he has received to help market those spots on a national level have dropped considerably.

"[School] boards are, in fact, looking at more local," said Guillen. "And local can mean in-state to them and it can mean in-district. And many districts have qualified personnel."

Guillen said it's not unusual for about one-fourth of the state's 89 public school districts to have a vacancy each year, and this year is no exception.

Twenty-four superintendent positions in New Mexico have opened in the past few months, and three of the state's largest school districts — Albuquerque Public Schools, Las Cruces Public Schools and Santa Fe Public Schools — had or are conducting searches for their next leader.

Santa Fe Public Schools announced six finalists Thursday for its superintendent opening to replace Veronica García, and all the candidates reside in New Mexico.

Five have ties to the school district, with four of them working in administrative roles.

Last month, Albuquerque Public Schools removed the interim designation for Superintendent Scott Elder, who was selected over two out-of-state finalists in what is becoming a rarity in the state — a national search.

Santa Fe school board President Kate Noble said board members were adamant about finding an ideal candidate who understands the culture of Santa Fe as well possessing the credentials to lead the district.

She also pointed to the success the district achieved under García as another reason for staying with local candidates.

In her five years, García has overseen a rise in four-year graduation rates — from 67 percent for the Class of 2015, the year before she arrived, to 86.3 percent for the Class of 2020.

She guided the district's transition last year from in-person to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We feel like we have a strong district, we're a flagship [in the state] and we have a lot offer," Noble said. "We set the bar high. We need someone who has the savvy, the experience and the wide range of skill sets that are crucial in running this school district."

District Associate Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez, one of the candidates to replace García, said in-state candidates tend to have a better understanding of the communities they work in as well as the challenges students face in trying to gain an education.

He added García's mentorship with her administrative team helped cultivate strong leaders who can continue the work she started.

"I think it's key to making a good transition and having an understanding of what's taking place within the school district," Chavez said.

However, not all school board members see the search process simply as a decision between trusted locals versus unknown out-of-state candidates.

Teresa Tenorio, the Las Cruces school board secretary, said every district would like to find ideal candidates from within, but a good superintendent from anywhere provides strong leadership and creates productive relationships with parents and the community as well as teachers and staff members.

Tenorio said the leadership of former Superintendent Karen Trujillo, who died in February when she was struck by a vehicle while walking, was crucial in helping Las Cruces schools navigate the challenges of reopening classrooms and in building trust in her plan.

Trujillo's work provided Tenorio with a blueprint of what she wants to see in her replacement.

"More than ever, we needed good communication, we wanted transparency and trust," Tenorio said. "And that teamwork and leadership, those things were critical when we needed it. Those are some of the things I value."

García said larger districts have become hesitant about out-of-state hires because of the transition period needed for them to ingratiate themselves with a community.

"If they don't know the nuances of their community or the state, it becomes tough on them," García said. "It takes several years to get going, but then you lose ground."

Steven Carrillo, a former Santa Fe school board president, countered that sometimes an outside presence can change the direction of a district.

He was a part of the board that chose Joel Boyd, an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia, to succeed Bobbie Gutierrez

in 2012.

He said the district's graduation rate was 57 percent, and a shake-up was needed.

While it cost the district $30,000 to hire a national search firm, Carrillo said Boyd set the stage for the success Santa Fe Public Schools is seeing now.

"We knew it would be controversial, and people would not be pleased with the decision or the programs Mr. Boyd implemented," Carrillo said.

"But we knew Santa Fe Public Schools was spinning into an abyss."

While superintendent is considered a prestigious job, it comes with the heavy burden of expectations.

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders and a former superintendent in Las Cruces, Hobbs and Alamogordo, said superintendents are the face of the district.

And they sometimes can draw the ire of community members, especially during times of crisis or bad news.

"Superintendents are often in a position where they have to be the bearer of bad tidings because of state and federal regulatory requirements," Rounds said. "You can never duck that as a superintendent because you are the messenger."

He noted some districts saw constant change in leadership from 2008-15 as the state recovered from the Great Recession, which significantly reduced school district budgets and led to unpopular cuts in programs and services as well as school closures.

Rounds said the coronavirus pandemic is another example of a crisis situation, but he saw a different trend emerge. Superintendents were leaving because of mounting stress and workloads that grew as districts adapted to an ever-changing educational environment.

García, 71, has repeatedly said the long hours she consistently logged during the pandemic, sometimes up to 90 hours per week, wore on her and led to her decision to retire.

Rounds said superintendents had to adapt to ever-changing guidance from state and federal agencies on how to safely reopen schools.

Then, there was the challenge of providing students with the technology needed to conduct remote learning.

Now, schools have to balance the task of in-person and remote learning.

Those are issues Rounds said won't magically disappear.

"The thing is, we're still going to see that through the rest of this year," Round said. "And heading into the next year, it's still not a clear path."

Despite the amount of work the past 13 months required from her, García said it doesn't change her perspective on the job. And it's one she feels is still worth doing.

"I love my job, I truly do," García said.

"I am going to miss it. I love the speed at which we go and the complexity of the issues we deal with. ... I love the work because it's challenging and it's work that makes a difference."