Lurking just beneath the surface in the public outcry and anger over the GISD scandal is the conflict of interest inherent in the two incompatible hats being worn by Cynthia Nava: School Superintendent and powerful State Senator. From her point of view, of course, wearing each hat and being able to put one on and take one off, must have seemed very convenient, at least for a while. For example, the New Mexico School Boards Association, in giving the award to the GISD was almost certainly thinking about the Senate hat worn by the GISD Superintendent, Cynthia Nava. As a powerful state senator, Chair of Education, co-chair of the Public School Captial Outlay Oversight Task Force, and vice chair of the LESC, she might well be grateful for a positive gesture from a statewide education lobby group toward her school board (which hires and fires superintendents, and does very little else) at a moment the school board and Superintendent Nava were under heavy fire. And the gratitude they might have been thinking about was almost certainly not gratitude they might receive from Superintendent Nava, but from Senator Nava.
Similarly, when statewide officials appeared to give thumbs up to the fiction that unused capital outlay funds could retroactively be applied to ongoing budget shortfalls, they were almost certainly motivated by a concern to ease the pain for Senator Nava (with powerful education committees under her control), not Superintendent Nava. Would any other superintendent in the state get such favorable treatment? And the School Board be given an award to boot?
It is unfair to the public and, as we are finding out, to Cynthia Nava herself, to allow the schizophrenia of the two hats to co-exist. Fact is, the public just won't buy the conflict of interest, not even in her own District. It is all too clear now that accountability--to the kids, the teachers, the parents, and the people of the state of New Mexico who pay the bills--has been crippled beyond recognition.
In fairness to Sen. Nava, it takes two to tango, and if state officials have winked at questionable actions by GISD officials, this is more of a commentary on their ethical make-up, double standards, and servile attitude to power than it is about Nava. Like the Sun-News editorialized the other day, "how can Auditor Hector Balderas let a district go for so long without completing an audit? And where was Education Secretary Veronica Garcia when the district was spending four years digging itself in the hole?" Are there others out there who should be questioned about this as well? These officials are paid good money to make sure taxpayer money is monitored in the best interests of the people of the state. The schizophrenia of the two hats extends well beyond the wearer of the two hats, and is in all probability more damaging to the public than the schizophrenia of the wearer.
None of this started with Cynthia Nava. Just in Dona Ana County alone, there were serious conflicts of interest, almost certainly thought out with great deliberation, when the County hired state senator Fernando Macias to be county manager. Wearing those two hats must have been a ball: could the county commissioners afford to fire a state senator? If a county elected official were unhappy with the treatment his office received from the manager, would they complain about the very person they might be lobbying in Santa Fe for favors during the session? A great deal of mischief took place under this arrangement, including the false arrest of Mayor Ruben Segura when he refused to bend to the county's efforts to monopolize the development of water resources in the Southern part of the county. Rumors of corruption still circulate in connection with some of the county commissioners of that time period.
Other counties have conflicts as well. Senator Pete Campos, from District 8, which includes Guadalupe, Torrance, and parts of San Miguel, Santa Fe, and Mora counties, was also a superintendent of the Las Vegas Public Schools until he became President of the Luna Community College in Las Vegas earlier this year, another serious conflict of interest.
The Campos story has another twist. Campos is rumored to be in line, should Carlos Cisneros succeed in becoming President Pro Tem of the Senate to replace Sen. John Arthur Smith, from Luna County, as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. As I mentioned in a blog about this below, should Cisneros succeed, the power now enjoyed by Southern Senators--Tim Jennings, John Arthur Smith, Mary Kay Papen, Cynthia Nava--will be lost to the North. And if the books at Luna Community College start looking like they need an audit, or if he decides his campus needs special appropriations, do you really trust President Campos to restrain from using his clout with Senator Campos, Chair of Senate Finances, to make nice things happen?
The Nava case, if anything, proves that it is a bad idea to exempt public school officials from the doctrine that state government workers cannot function as state legislators. Superintendents are important state government officials and taxpayers should not have to put up with the kinds of games that can be played on all sides when state legislators wear one hat too many.