Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Schizophrenia of the Two Hats

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow- I guess Sen Nava can get away with all this because their is no accountabilty. The students in the class room are the ones paying the price for her miss givings. It was never mentioned but the school board took a high price trip to Ruidoso during this down budget times.

Anonymous said...

Why make Senator Nava the focal point for this post? From my view, she is competent at both jobs she holds. She inherited -- not created -- a bad situation at GISD and has handled it openly and effectively.

Further, Senator Nava should not be held accountable for NM's legislative system. Our reliance on unpaid legislators means that virtually all our representatives and senators will also work for somebody else. Thus, all are open to charges of conflict of interest between constituencies and employers.

Her openness in how she has handled GISD actually suggests that she is exactly the type of person we should want in such an ethically ambiguous position.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

Sen. Nava should be the focal point. What other superintendent would get an award after showing up $4 million short? Superintendent should not be an ethically ambiguous position. It is a position of trust paid by taxpayers and should be accountable based on the same ethics we expect of all superintendents and their political bosses.

Nobody is trying to hold Sen. Nava accountable for NM's legislative system. What I would like is to know she is accountable for her performance at GISD--and when a district goes 4 years without an audit and finds itself $4 million in the hole that doesn't sound to me like the normal rules of accountability have been in force. Nor is it helpful to the cause of accountability for an education lobby group to curry favor with her by giving her district an award under these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I was not clear when I posted the second comment. Any member of our legislature who has another job is in an ethically ambiguous position. As a school superintendent, Senator Nava has a job requiring much more openness than, say, a developer or business owner would have. This element of openness, I argue, makes her more suited to serve in these two difficult jobs.

Senator Nava did not get the award, the GISD School Board did.

Also, Senator Nava became Superintendent in 2007, so she can hardly be held accountable for 4 years of auditing practices that started in 2004.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

I will leave the issue of how open Sen. Nava is in her role as Superintendent for others to judge. But conflicts of interest put even good, open people in bad positions. Even good people for example would lack objectivity if allowed to evaluate themselves to determine salary increases. I have taken pains to point out the mischief in the case of Sen. Nava. When people paid to enforce audit rules in schools failed to enforce regulations, it is reasonable to ask whether this failure had to do with a desire not to offend a powerful state senator who was a high official in the school district when these lapses occurred. Sen. Nava might not have done anything wrong or taken any action at all to get these results, but that doesn't mean her conflict of interest played no role in undermining the protection of taxpayer money. It just means other people exploited this conflict.

You say the school board got the award, not Sen. Nava. True. But conflicts of interest tend to blur the truth. Did this education lobby group award the GISD board after they evaluated 89 school districts and honestly picked GISD? Or did they give the award in great part because they thought down the road Sen. Nava would be grateful to them for the gesture during a difficult moment? You probably believe the lobbyists acted innocently. I don't, but if I am right, is it not partially correct for me to say the award was given to Sen. Nava? The blur here is the problem, caused by the conflict. We can never know for sure. Conflicts of interest should be avoided among other reasons so that citizens won't have to raise these questions or struggle to figure out where the truth lies. When you have to struggle to figure out where the truth lies, you have already lost transparency, an essential ingredient in democratic governance.

Paul said...

Dr. Jose,
It pains me to admit that my children took classes from you. You have failed at your homework or I suppose "research".

Watch our state government use cap. money for operating expenses as both the LFC and the executive begin to pull back unused cap. to cover the budget shortfall. GISD will pay themselves back for the use of their own money, which has been deemed legal and correct by both the executive and the legislature. This Dr. is no myth!!

Your 2nd failing is not recognizing who in our county has been the most efficient legistor for many years. Research New Mexico Legislative Reports and you will find that Senator Nava is by far the most productive legislator when you look at the number of bills signed into law.

You, Dr., seem to be fixed on Senator Nava for no other reason than simple jealousy.

Jose Z. Garcia said...

1. Would any other school district be allowed to shuffle money this way to cover up a shortfall that accumulated over several years after it failed to audit the books several times in a row? That the shuffle has been legalized by authority doesn't mean it would be permitted for others, it just means that conflicts of interest work. Can you show me this is common practice?
2. Whether Sen. Nava is a "good" legislator or a "bad" legislator does not change the conflict of interest she carries by wearing both hats. I have not commented on her overall performance as a senator, but since you brought it up, I can tell you some people think she is a good senator and others think she is a bad senator, and there are many in-between. I'm not sure your measurement of "bills signed into law" makes a lot of sense as an indicator of excellence in a senator. What if they were bad laws? The measure of a senator cannot be reduced to one number.