New Mexico education policy director resigns over remarks

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — An education policy expert has resigned her post at the New Mexico Legislature following a long-simmering controversy over remarks she made about Native American students in 2019.

Legislative Education Study Committee director Rachel Gudgel announced her resignation last week, ending her tenure as a top nonpartisan adviser to lawmakers focused on education policy, where she earned around $130,000 per year.

“I have worked for the Legislature since 2005 and I love my job. However, the harassment and difficult work environment over the past three months has created an atmosphere that is just too challenging for me to continue to work in and be effective,” she said in a statement.

The decision followed a year of disciplinary actions that included a temporary suspension, an apology and a $100,000 professional coach. In her apology to Native American leaders, she described her remarks as “insensitive.” Native American advocacy groups and lawmakers later called for her resignation.

Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo, said that he gave Gudgel the benefit of the doubt, but found the comments were worse than he initially thought.

“I wanted her resignation, or I wanted her terminated. So I think for me, this shouldn’t have taken so long,” said Lente, who had voted for the education committee to fire her, believing she possessed an implicit bias that made it impossible to serve Native American students.

Around 10% of New Mexico school children are Indigenous, and the state has around two dozen Native American tribes with their own unique languages and cultures. They are plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit driving education policy in the legislature, in which a state court ruled that the state offers substandard education to Native American and other vulnerable children.

Education committee members accepted the resignation and appointed deputy director Vanessa Hawker to lead the research efforts through the next legislative session, which will begin in January.

The education committee’s chairman, who had voted in support of her staying on, said the members are ready to move on.

“We can now focus on our most pressing objective, which is to achieve the highest possible positive learning outcomes for every student in New Mexico. This is a goal every committee member is committed to, and I am confident that we remain united in working to achieve it,” said Sen. Bill Soules of Doña Ana County.

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Sept. 8, 2021, on Youth Today.

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