Local Legislator Rises To Be Education Champion

by Staff Reporter / May 08, 2018 / comments
Representative Debbie Rodella photographed during debate on the House Floor during the 2016 legislative session. Valley Daily Post photo

Local Legislator Rises To Be Teachers’ Champion

Staff Report

New Mexico schoolteachers and students have faced funding shortages over the past eight years as the state has attempted to recover from the great recession. The depressed economy, along with reduced spending has meant schools are underfunded and not fully capable to meet the demands of teaching a student population that often lives in poverty or economic insecurity.

Yet, teachers and administrators repeatedly have risen to the challenge, providing the best education possible, while knowing that their own paychecks have been cut and their schools lack the necessary materials.

Complicating things for teachers is a Governor who has publically focused her educational agenda on policies that are widely viewed as attacking teachers as the source of the state’s education problems. Over the past seven years Governor Susana Martinez has repeatedly attempted to implement education evaluation systems that tie teachers salaries to test scores, a method most education advocacy groups consider draconian and counterproductive as such policies are documented to drive good teachers out of the profession entirely. One such draconian policy is penalizing teachers in their evaluation for staying home when sick.

All teachers are provided up to 10 days of leave per year to use when sick or needed for other reasons. A Public Education Department policy pushed by Governor Martinez and her appointees would penalize teachers in their evaluation for using their sick leave days. Teachers groups universally condemned the policy, saying it was leading to teachers becoming afraid to miss school, even when they were very ill. Some teachers were documented coming to school when sick, causing other teachers and students to also become ill.

Local teacher Crystal Gallegos, a 2009 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching recipient and teacher at Coronado Middle/High School in Gallina described the teacher evaluation system calling it “flawed in many ways as it holds teachers accountable for circumstances beyond their control”.

In 2017 a local legislator took on this issue in an effort to remove the use of sick leave from the standardized teacher evaluation system. Representative Debbie Rodella (D-Rio Arriba), along with other education champions co-sponsored House Bill 241 which would protect teachers and school staff from being negatively evaluated for using their sick leave.

Local residents know Debbie Rodella as a powerful voice in the New Mexico legislature guiding government policy on business development. Some also know she is the longest serving woman to serve in the legislature and the first woman to ever chair the powerful House Business & Industry Committee. But many are surprised to learn that Rodella has quietly worked behind the scenes for years to protect teachers and students from bad government policies and insufficient funding.

After describing the problems with the teacher evaluation system, teacher Crystal Gallegos spoke of the local legislator, saying “ Debbie Rodella recognizes the endless contributions teachers are making while the profession is becoming more challenging and less attractive”.

HB-241 passed both the House and Senate but was vetoed by Governor Martinez. Rodella helped lead the charge to override the veto, gathering a majority of votes in favor of passing the bill, but in spite of having a Republican co-sponsor a number of Republican legislators backed the governor and defeated the override attempt.

Rodella also pushed for and voted for a bill to prohibit school administrators from publicly shaming children who cannot pay for their lunch. Some schools in New Mexico had followed a national trend of refusing to provide hot meals to students who cannot pay their lunch bill. Those students were frequently being given a cold cheese sandwich, visibly distinguishing them from other students in the dining area. Rodella supported Senate Bill 374 that prohibits schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing a student who cannot pay for a meal or owes a meal debt. This bill successfully passed the legislature and was signed by the Governor becoming law.

Locally schools are known to be struggling to keep teachers on staff and meet the needs of students. Gallegos added at the end of her statement, “Debbie continues to fight and vote for the rights of teachers and I’m appreciative of her efforts”.

Representative Rodella, a member of the Blue Star Mothers organization in Espanola volunteers at the Blue Star Mothers booth at a concert event at the Espanola plaza in 2017. Valley Daily Post photo

New Mexico will elect a new Governor in November and the opportunity to advance pro-education legislation like a new teacher evaluation system or increased funding to the classroom could materialize.  Education champions in the legislature, such as Representative Rodella stand ready to take advantage of that change.

Representative Debbie Rodella and her son Tommy Rodella Jr. during opening day ceremonies of the 2015 legislative session. Valley Daily Post photo