"Frankly, I don't think that continuing down the current path with the board increases your chance of having a long-term relationship with Santa Fe Public Schools," SFPS Board of Education Vice President Glenn Wikle wrote Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez in a February 2011 email. "I'm concerned that it would have the opposite effect."
Considering that Wikle is one of three BoE members who voted last week to buy out Gutierrez' contract, the early date of that email is surprising. Wikle was trying to convince Gutierrez not to accept the outgoing school board's vote to extend her contract for a year, which happened at that board's final meeting on Feb. 17, 2011—before Wikle and two other new board members took office. On Feb. 27 of this year, Wikle and two other members had the chance to undo the previous board's decision, and they took it—but whether the polarized group can continue to work together remains to be seen.
"My thinking at the time was, had she thrown herself at the mercy of the [new] board at that time, it just would have set the stage for a different way of thinking," Wikle says. "It would have said, 'I'm willing to earn my job on my merits.'"
SFPS BoE President Barbara Gudwin, who voted in February 2011 to extend Gutierrez' contract, won't reconsider her decision.
"That's a procedure that is the right of whatever board is in place at that time," Gudwin says. "It was legally our right to do that, and I don't think I'm going to go back and second-guess my vote at this point."
The simmering tensions between the newer and long-standing board members didn't arise overnight, and they aren't likely to dissipate quickly, either. Member Steve Carrillo says it's time for Gudwin to be replaced in her role as president, a change the board was scheduled to address at its March 6 meeting. Since the president controls the BoE meeting agendas, he or she is responsible for making the meetings productive, rather than letting them extend into the late hours of the night, which frequently happens.
"There are lots of ways we could attempt to make board meetings shorter," Carrillo says. "But first, there has to be the serious will to do so."
Fred Nathan, executive director of think tank Think New Mexico, says the board president should be someone who agrees with the majority opinion. Gudwin, in contrast, voted against Gutierrez' buyout and spoke at length about her disagreement with the majority decision. Carrillo wouldn't comment on whether he would seek the board presidency, but Wikle acknowledges his own interest in doing so.
"I'm willing to do that," Wikle says. "I'm willing to set aside the time to take on the responsibility of the president."
One of the BoE's most important new tasks is finding a new superintendent. "The next superintendent should be someone who has a track record of relentlessly putting the needs of the students above the convenience of adults; making decisions based on data rather than politics; and hiring outstanding principals and giving them the power to tailor their curricula, budgets and hiring to best serve their students," Nathan advises.
Carrillo agrees that giving principals more authority over how to run individual schools is one of the most important changes a new superintendent should make.
"I think we need someone that has the self-confidence and leadership skills to be able to have principals and schools run with much more autonomy," Carrillo says.
Carrillo suggests that retiring state Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Doña Ana, is the type of leader SFPS needs.
"Clearly, in terms of standardized tests, [Nava's] district did way better for English-language learners than Santa Fe has, and that's a real sore point in Santa Fe," Wikle, who also praises Nava's leadership, says. "Why are Spanish-speaking children in Santa Fe not learning English in five years, like they are expected to in other parts of the country?"
Nava, who just announced her intention not to seek re-election and who retired as Gadsden superintendent last September, says she hasn't considered taking on any full-time position right now. Even though Gadsden is similar in size and demographics, Nava says she won't presume to make specific suggestions of how SFPS should be run without knowing more. But she does know where a new superintendent might start.
"I think whoever is selected will have to really dig down into the data and look at the scores and all kinds of attendance and parental involvement, and especially graduation rates," Nava says. "The data tells you whatever direction you need to go. We're really rich in data in this state, but sometimes we don't use it well enough, or really take a look at it."
Considering that Gutierrez has dismissed the significance of SFPS' low graduation rates (which rank 88th out of the state's 89 school districts) and low achievement scores, that strategy does sound like a new approach. But after Gudwin and BoE Member Frank Montaño's staunch opposition to the buyout, it's unclear whether getting rid of Gutierrez cleaned the slate for a new start or created more deeply embedded distrust among board members. Wikle says that he's moved forward after being voted down on controversial decisions, and he expects Montaño and Gudwin to do the same.
"I keep my mouth shut about that and support the board's decision," Wikle says.
And in Carrillo's view, differences in opinion aren't necessarily a problem.
"It's OK to have a divided board," Carrillo says. "It's not the end of the world. I would worry about the rubber-stamp board that we replaced."
Gudwin says the board does need to come together to finalize its new strategic plan, which is currently in draft form. But although the board's overall strategy and philosophy for the district need to be in sync, the heated discussions that sometimes create drama at Tuesday night meetings aren't always symptomatic of dysfunction.
"I don't necessarily think that a good, honest difference of opinion necessarily is a bad thing," Gudwin says. "I think, when you're making decisions, you should think of all sides of an issue before you make your mind up.
Sometimes, we vote together, and sometimes, we don't."
Editor's note: On Tuesday, March 6, the BoE elected Frank Montaño as its new president. Click here to read SFR's coverage of the vote.