The PED needs independent probe to answer questions on licenses

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Trip Jennings is Executive Director of New Mexico In Depth

Trip Jennings is Executive Director of New Mexico In Depth

The former head of the New Mexico Public Education Department bureau responsible for licensing K-12 school teachers and administrators faked credentials while in that state job to win an administrative license, the Las Vegas Optic reported over the weekend. That license subsequently allowed him to become superintendent of Mora Independent School District, pulling down an annual salary of $100,000.

In winning a license, Optic staff Martin Salazar and Mercy Lopez tell us, Charles Trujillo “managed to deceive the very state agency responsible for policing school administrators and teachers.”

Let those words linger: Trujillo “managed to deceive the very state agency responsible for policing school administrators and teachers.

It’s a hell of a story, with more than enough irony to go around.

But as compelling as the Optic’s story is – it is good, hard-hitting journalism — the much bigger story hasn’t unfurled yet. Namely, how this was able to occur in the very Public Education Department (PED) bureau that is responsible for protecting against such fraud.

These are questions that need answering and, because some might question whether the agency can investigate itself, the PED should pay for an independent inquiry in a nod to public trust.

The Optic gives us hints of how the alleged fraud happened.

According to the newspaper’s story:

Trujillo submitted “a falsified Highlands University transcript with his licensure application. The fake transcript states that he earned a Master of Arts degree in guidance and counseling and human performance leisure & sport in December of 2004. The registrar’s office at Highlands says Charles Trujillo never obtained a master’s degree.

Without a master’s or doctorate degree, Charles Trujillo doesn’t qualify for an administrative license.

Question: How was he able to obtain a fake unofficial transcript in the first place?

Which leads to another question: If the transcript was faked, as the Optic has reported, how was Trujillo able to pass that transcript along as authentic in a state agency that is charged with and, presumably, armed with tools to detect such fraud?

Which leads to yet another question: What are the safeguards written into agency policies to guard against such abuse; and were they followed? Put another way, are there structural weaknesses – how policies are written; who reports to whom; who checks license applications and who doesn’t, etc. — in how the agency is charged with detecting fraud; or did this happen because of human action, whether through incompetence, employees being overworked or through malice?

Also, according to the Optic, PED appears to have violated one of its own rules by relying on “an unofficial transcript in granting the administrative license to Charles Trujillo.”

The newspaper explains it this way:

In order to be considered “official” a Highlands transcript must be sealed and opened only by a prospective employer or other requestor. The transcript contained in Charles Trujillo’s licensure file is stamped “issued to student” and does not contain the university’s watermark.

Nevertheless, PED Education Consultant Michelle Lewis sent a letter to the Mora school district in May vouching for Charles Trujillo’s transcripts, which were attached to her letter.

How did the agency’s reliance on an unofficial transcript occur, when it apparently violated the agency’s own rules?

Was it because agency officials and consultants weren’t aware of their own policy? Or was it for some other reason?

A PED spokesman told the Optic that it has opened an investigation in the matter. Good. There are many questions that need to be answered.

But, as I said above, the public deserves an independent review parallel to the agency’s inquiry. This scandal is happening at a time when the Public Education Department already is under scrutiny for its actions, including its implementation of how teachers are evaluated. Whatever results come from the internal inquiry some will question because of who is doing the investigating — those on the inside.

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