New state Children's Cabinet within Public Education Department

By Robert Nott
Posted 1/16/19

There is plenty to do: New Mexico's children lag in almost every statistical category.

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New state Children's Cabinet within Public Education Department


On paper, Mariana Padilla's new job title is simple and straightforward: She's the newly appointed director of the state's Children's Cabinet.

In real life, the job title is more challenging - and less certain. She could be convener and facilitator. She may be instigator and evaluator. And she could be none of those.

Such are the challenges with heading Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's recently announced Children's Cabinet - a group of Cabinet-level agency heads who will be charged with collecting, analyzing and, presumably, acting upon data pertaining to the state's kids.

There is plenty to do: New Mexico's children lag in almost every statistical category.

Improving those numbers, Padilla said, boils down to getting the heads of state agencies talking and sharing information so the state can improve upon its poor performance in the economic, educational and medical well-being of children.

"We want to encourage cross-departmental collaboration and break down those silos that exist and which don't allow us to tackle the problems facing children in all agencies and under all circumstances," she said.

She said Cabinet heads from a number of departments, ranging from public education to health to corrections to the Children, Youth and Families Department will take part in regular meetings to assess the needs of the state's children and find out "what is and isn't working for them."

Though the notion of Cabinet heads needing a central liaison to communicate among themselves may strike some as curious, Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said it's not a bad idea.

Based on her experience with agencies such as CYFD and the education department, Kernan said Padilla could ensure "we're all on the same page and working together when it comes to the state's children."

The Children's Cabinet - or at least, Padilla - could help point out and streamline areas of overlap, such as making sure prekindergarten teachers receive the same training regardless of whether they work for CYFD or the education department, both of which provide early childhood education programs, Kernan said.

But Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said that while he wants to "wait and see" what the Children's Cabinet accomplishes in its first year, he does not want to see it become another entity that "talks more about changing education without changing it. ... You just don't know what direction this group will take. Will they push an agenda or look at actual statistics and come up with real answers? Right now, we have no idea."

Since the beginning of her campaign trail to the Capitol, Lujan Grisham has continually spoken of her desire to improve a number of agencies that serve children, including CYFD and the Public Education Department. In her inauguration address earlier this week, she even pledged to start a new department focusing on early childhood education.

Padilla's appointment as head of the Children's Cabinet reinforces the governor's commitment to the state's children, said Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of United Way of Santa Fe County, which offers an array of early childhood programs and resources.

"I think it's a really important role," Freeman said. "It improves the landscape for dealing with children's issues across the board."

The Children's Cabinet has history: Former Gov. Bill Richardson created it in 2003 and designated former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to be its overseer. Denish chose Claire Dudley (now Claire Dudley-Chavez) as its director. That iteration initially focused on five key areas impacting children, including health, education and safety. Over time, seminars and workshops addressing such issues as the high school dropout rate, pre-K programs and home visits for first-time parents were established.

But without statutory power, Denish said, the Children's Cabinet could only recommend policies and programs for legislative approval.

Still, Dudley said, the cabinet did come up with specific goals and funding suggestions and issued an annual report card - not unlike what the Albuquerque-based nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children does - about how the state's children were faring when it came to health, economic well-being and education, among other factors.

"That report card and budget report were seen as good resources by folks in the Legislature and around the state," Dudley-Chavez said. "And I think the cabinet had real power in having Cabinet secretaries come together around specific legislative initiatives and budget requests."

Denish said what may give the Children's Cabinet even more punch now is the arrival of Padilla.

"The governor has named someone who will be working in her office as director," Denish said, "and initiating that right at the start of the governor's term will probably institutionalize the power of that cabinet."

Lujan Grisham, who served as secretary for the Department of Health under Richardson, said earlier this week that she thought the initial Children's Cabinet worked well in coordinating services and resources. She said she wants her version to have a youth advisory component so teens and young adults can have a say in policy matters.

New Mexico's performance on measures involving children is not good, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book, which uses statistical data to rate how each state does in terms of supporting the education, health and emotional and financial well-being of its kids. Last year, that report said New Mexico was last on all of those fronts for the first time in five years.

Padilla, 43, was born in Albuquerque and worked there as a public school teacher for five years. She earned a bachelor's degree in education and dual master's degrees in community and regional planning, and water resourcing at the University of New Mexico. She has three children, all of whom are enrolled in Albuquerque Public Schools. She also worked as a congressional aide to Lujan Grisham for six years.

She said her experience as both an educator and a mother will influence her decision making with the cabinet.

"I've worked in a range of educational settings, primarily low-income with disadvantaged communities ... and as a parent, I'm seeing what my kids go through every day in the classroom and what the challenges of teachers are to meet the needs of each one of their students," she said. "And I've seen how schools communicate with the greater community around them and how they support the needs of families in those communities as well as the needs of individual children. That is huge."

Padilla, who will earn $110,000 a year, said she will report directly to Lujan Grisham's chief operating officer, Teresa Casados, and that for the time being she will be the only staff member in the Children's Cabinet.

As Lujan Grisham is still appointing Cabinet-level directors, Padilla said it's too early to tell who the other members will be or when the Children's Cabinet will first meet. But she said she expects to hold some informal meetings during the upcoming 60-day legislative session and issue a first report with policy suggestions by Sept. 1.

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.


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