There's no doubt that Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate for the New Mexico Public Education Department, has been in Santa Fe lately.
Specifically, she's been in the hot seat at the Senate Rules Committee for her confirmation hearing—two years after her appointment by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. The committee, comprising six Democrats and four Republicans, can give Skandera's appointment an up or down vote, thereby either denying her confirmation—effectively booting her from her post—or sending the decision to the Senate floor. A tie vote would keep her in confirmation purgatory indefinitely.
Skandera has been a contentious figure for her educational reform ideas. But this week, a different issue came up: Skandera's frequent out-of-state trips, many of which are funded by nonprofits that contract with PED.
Travel vouchers—obtained from the state Department of Finance and Administration via a public-records request by the union-funded Independent Source PAC—show that Skandera has traveled to various locations around the country and internationally during her two years in office.
Often, her travel is paid for by groups like the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which advocates for the same education reforms—charter schools, third-grade retention and A-F school grading—that Skandera is pushing through in New Mexico.
Although many of the trips aren't costing New Mexico taxpayers a dime, and travel isn't uncommon for high-ranking officials, critics say the fact that state contractors are paying for them may compromise Skandera's integrity. Those concerns emerged during Saturday's confirmation hearing, when Michael Corwin—the head of ISPAC, which has been highly critical of Martinez—presented his investigation of Skandera.
Corwin raised the issue of whether a state contractor paying for Skandera's travel would violate the state's Gift Act, which holds that a "government contractor shall not donate gifts of an aggregate market value greater than one thousand ($1,000) in a calendar year to any one state officer or employee."
The act, however, offers various exceptions—including travel connected with a state employee's "official duties." Indeed, each of Skandera's travel vouchers states that the trip is "required." PED spokesman Larry Behrens did not directly respond to SFR's questions about whether some trips may have violated the Gift Act.
Corwin's research shows that, over the past two years, various PED contractors have paid for Skandera's flights and hotel rooms. For instance, in 2011, PED paid the Minnesota-based Summit Education Associates, LLC, more than $96,000 for "professional services," according to the state's Sunshine Portal.
The company lists as its manager FEE Senior Policy Fellow Christy Hovanetz, who helped advise Skandera on legislation [news, Feb. 19: "Business School"]. Then, in June 2012, FEE paid nearly $3,000 to fly Skandera—who is a member of Chiefs for Change, a FEE-operated group of public officials who support the nonprofit's reform agenda—to a Chiefs meeting in Washington, DC, followed by FEE's "Festival of Education" in London.
Skandera also serves on the board of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of 22 states "working together to develop a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math"—online evaluations Skandera plans to implement in New Mexico in 2015. Travel vouchers show PARCC paid a total of more than $2,000 for Skandera to attend board meetings in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Va.
PARCC, too, has ties to state money: It's run by Washington, DC-based nonprofit Achieve, Inc., which last year landed a $39,660 contract with PED, according to the Sunshine Portal.
Skandera is also a member of the nonprofit National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which paid at least $1,800 to send her to a four-day leadership conference in Memphis, Tenn., in October 2012. NACSA, a nonprofit, has had a relationship with New Mexico since "years before" Skandera took office, Behrens tells SFR in an email, explaining that "the extent of this relationship is no more than $3,000 paid annually in membership fees."
When asked for a response to Corwin's allegations, Behrens responded: "Over two days of the hearing, supporters for Secretary Skandera and reform for our students outnumbered those who stand for the status quo. As far as responding to the presentation, it is beyond disappointing that a political operative funded by special interests is given more time before this committee than the citizens of New Mexico who traveled hundreds of miles to testify."
The committee is scheduled to continue Skandera's confirmation hearing this week.
Santa Fe Reporter