Gov. says education secretary will improve school boards

Editor’s note: Gov. Bill Richardson visited Clovis and Portales on Wednesday to solicit support for two state constitutional amendments aimed at education reform, which voters will decide on Sept. 23. He spent about an hour with Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico staff members, answering questions on a variety of issues.
Q. Would the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Education position, as proposed in Constitutional amendment 1, affect the autonomy of the local school boards?
A. What I’d like to say is look at the structure now. Without a secretary, the state is coming down with onerous pronouncements. And not to make the argument negatively, but I want to be sure that the new secretary does respect the local school boards. My view is that the local school boards will be strengthened by this because they don’t have to go through the state Board of Education. Local school boards can go straight to the Legislature or to the governor or to the secretary for policy changes relating to their own schools. I think it’s a more streamlined control of the education department. No longer will we have these fights between the state board and the state department that exists today. And the governor has basically been a spectator.

Q. Under the proposed amendment, how would the state board be organized?
A. Right now, there are 15 on the board — 10 are elected and five are political appointees. Under the new structure, there will only be 10, and they’ll all be elected. Under the new structure, the state board has just an advisory role. See, that’s the whole point. What you had before was the governor appointing five cronies, and the other group was elected, but they represented special interests. One of the reasons — and (Senators) Clint Harden and Stuart Ingle advised me — I went along with the advisory board is because the rural areas always feel they want to have a voice. Even if it was advisory, they want to be able to elect their person from this area — as long as they don’t have the main authority. The secretary has it.

Q: But the secretary is appointed?
A: Yeah, I appoint the secretary. But he answers to the Legislature, and he is confirmed by the Legislature. And he has to be an educator. I will conduct a wide-open search to get the best person.

Q. What do you think of the No Child Left Behind Act?
A. I think the No Child Left Behind Act is a good piece of legislation. It was a bipartisan piece; actually it brought Bush and Ted Kennedy together. … I think the best part of No Child Left Behind is the testing. You have to have testing — otherwise you won’t know how you’re doing.

Q. One of our school board members asked a kind of rhetorical question the other day, “How long will it take before all of the schools in the state will be on probation?” because of the Adequate Yearly Progress facet of the No Child Left Behind Act. How would you respond to that?
A. My hope is that we don’t use that confrontation approach, that the secretary shows some flexibility. I think it’s important we have like a moratorium on some of those punitive measures. One of the things we have to do if this passes is to rewrite the whole school code. It’s like starting over — reorganizing the department. There’s a lot to do.

Q. What does rewriting “the whole school code” mean?
A. Basically, it means you’re reorganizing the entire K-12 system. Now, this doesn’t mean you can change it dramatically because a lot of it is already in statute and the school formula — that’s not going to change. But it does mean the regulatory standards, licensing, policies and administration.

Q. In regard to the Land Grant Permanent Fund being used to increase funding for education (second amendment on the Sept. 23 ballot): Opponents worry there will be an attack on the principal that will leave the state weak for our children’s children. How do you respond to that?
A. No, that’s the rhetoric, you know, but it really is not the case. If I want to spend money in New Mexico, it will be for two things — schools and water. The fund is at $6.8 billion right now, and almost everyone agrees that by 2020, the fund will be at $14.5 billion … The fund is growing regardless of what we do. I think there are enough safeguards … I think what we’re talking about is a period of time where we have to fund these reforms independent of the budget — the licensure, class size, new programs, childhood education.

Q. What else can it be used for?
A. Well, it can be used for licensure, computers, books, class size, mentoring, for drop-out prevention, advanced placement programs, for programs that deal with the classroom. It’s fairly broad. It can’t be used, for instance, for raises for custodians. It can’t be used for building schools. It’s like for reforms.

Q. Why are these changes necessary?
A. You have to look at the status quo. The status quo right now is an educational system that’s not functioning well because the leadership is fighting each other. And secondly, our (test) scores are not good. And so employers who want to come to our state see our weak schools and they’ll go elsewhere.

Q. What was the thought process that went into the decision to ask the voters for money from the permanent fund instead of from other state revenue funds?
A. First of all, we spend about 60 percent of the budget for education, and it’s pretty well earmarked. Even though we spend per child, probably, on the average, more than the average state, we don’t get the bang for the buck because it’s inefficiently run. Too much goes to administration. The good thing now is the secretary and I can now look at that money — which we couldn’t before — and say, “Hey, you’re not spending this right. This has gotta change.” I’m talking about the regular budget — the 60 percent. But just taking more general fund money is not justified on the basis of cost-benefit and also because you get into a fight — what about the road people, the prisons? And so, the idea was that let’s start using the state investment in the permanent fund for New Mexico. Now the original intent of the investment of the land permanent fund was for education. It’s for the state in the future, reserving and saving money for education. So you don’t want to take the principal. Nobody’s advocating that. But, yeah, I’ve been more creative in wanting to use the interest better — for economic development, you know, like the cheese plant (soon to be located near the Curry/Roosevelt County line). I mean, they’re getting some state loans. The whole thrust of my campaign was let’s not invest the whole permanent fund on Wall Street; let’s enhance education; and let’s help small business here.

Q. Some representatives, like Brian Moore of Clayton, have complained that the Legislature didn’t talk about other ways to raise money other than going into the permanent fund. And your proposal was to go to the permanent fund more than any other angle?
A. Yes, because it’s more responsible. We’re assured of funds that are stable, and we are not taking from other programs and expenditures. I think education is sacred. And I’ve always felt we have not had a more efficient use of the permanent fund. We may have lost money investing it the way they did (in the past). … If you look at the history of the fund, it was created to improve our educational system. We haven’t put, I believe, enough resources in the education reform. These reforms were just put forth in the last three or four years, and I think many of them are good. You gotta pay for it. You can’t just do them without resources.

Q. With voters being the contrary creatures that they often are, what if they approve only one of the two amendments? If you had to make a choice between the two, which one would you rather have?
A. I would choose the secretary because that gives accountability to me and because I can at least do things.

Q. In regard to the appointment of a judge to fill the 9th Judicial District slot left vacant by the appointment of Judge Robert Brack to the federal district court: How is that process going? Will you be making the announcement of his replacement soon?
A. What I usually do is I interview all the candidates — and we’re ahead of schedule. We’re going to do the interviews next week. I’m going to call them both (Joe Parker and Robert Orlik). Judges are very important. I just want good people — and committed people..

Q. During the process of appointing Judge Bill Bonem’s replacement on the 9th Judicial District bench, we heard that Joe Parker received higher ratings from the judicial committee than the other candidates, but you opted to go with Ted Hartley to fill that position instead. Was there any political affiliation factor that weighed in on that decision?
A. I was impressed with Parker, and I was impressed with Orlik. I think their legal competence was pretty equal, and the fact that I knew Teddy the best was a factor. This next one will be competence. It won’t be party. I don’t even know what the parties of the two are.

Q. What about a water management plan for crisis situations, like drought and other events? How would that work? Would the state engineer have the authority to mandate actions?
A. I felt the state water engineer was operating without a statewide plan. I mean, everybody was suing everybody. Everybody was doing their own thing in each region. So I said, “Let’s have a statewide water plan. But also, in case of shortages or emergencies, let’s find ways to have a plan.” Now, what happens if the Ogallala Aquifer, which in 20 or 30 years is supposed to go dry, what if it goes dry earlier with these droughts? What is the plan? I don’t believe the Legislature gave any more authority to the water engineer. I didn’t propose any beyond what he has now. I will say to you the last state water engineer — I think … he should have used his authority more. They just wouldn’t make decisions, so we have all this backlog.

Q. What about the possibility of a water treaty with Texas? On this side of the state, that’s a major concern.
A. I had a meeting with Gov. Rick Perry last week in Chihuahua, Mexico, and I proposed to him that we need to have some new arrangements. I said, “We have to talk about the Ogallala, and I want to review the Rio Grande compact,” and he didn’t give me a yes or a no. But I said, “Look, we’ve gotta do this.” We worked out the Rio Grande issue pretty well. It will have to be, preferably, a negotiation. I don’t want to get into a public fight.

Q. When you were energy secretary, you were advocating energy reforms. What do you think of those reforms in the wake of the recent blackout the nation experienced?
A. When I was secretary, we pushed the first … reliability standards, which mandates utilities not to overload the system. That’s what caused the problem. We also put forth some investment incentives for utilities to build more transmitters. And then, I had 13 summits around the country, and I told them, “I know this is boring, but one of these days, we’re going to have a blackout because we’ve got too overloaded systems.” This is a national problem. It’s not just the East Coast. I caught a lot of grief saying, “We have a Third World grid” on Larry King Live. I really feel it’s not all Third World, but we’ve got some very old grids.

Q. Where are you going from here, politically?
A. I’ve been very firm. I’m not going for vice-president. I’ve said I’m going to run for re-election. That’s it. I don’t want to go back to the Senate. I love this job. This is the best job I’ve ever had.