Jeff Cearley thought he’d taken his last trip on a school bus when he gave up coaching football more than 10 years ago.
But Cearley was back in a familiar role before dawn one day earlier this month as he counted heads and helped 17 students board a bus bound for Santa Fe. In addition to the students and Cearley, who is HHS principal, FHS Assistant Principal Lana Weldy and HHS Social Studies teacher Heath Lakin were along for the ride.
The group’s focus during the coming two days would be a behind-the-scenes look at how state government operates. And if the students got a taste of Santa Fe culture and cuisine in the process, all the better.
Hobbs School Board member Joe Calderon, a former HHS teacher and House of Representatives sergeant at arms, suggested the trip.
“Until I started working up there, I had no clue how a law was made, how everything started or how it worked. I wanted the kids to see that representatives and senators are humans and that one person can make a change,” Calderon said. “Hopefully, when these kids realize that, they might want to be in the same position – or even be governor some day.”
LaNette Gray, wife of State Rep. Bill Gray and grandmother of one of the students, Lane Moore, feels the same way. “You are our inheritance. You are our best treasure,” she told the group after buying their lunch at Plaza landmark LaFonda. “We are hoping you …soak it all in and have a good time.”
The soaking in process began as the students walked from the Plaza to the state capitol, where they received a guided tour of the Roundhouse and heard details about its gallery-quality artwork.
Then the students got a rare chance to sit around the same granite table where Gov. Susanna Martinez’ hammers out policy with an inner sanctum of cabinet secretaries and advisors.
“It’s hard, it’s a lot of hours it’s a lot of conflict, but boy, you feel good when you get something done because you are doing it on behalf of other people,” Deputy Chief of Staff Scott Darnell – only 28 years old himself – told the group during a 30-minute discourse on how state government works. “One of our governor’s top priorities,” Darnell added, “is improving our education system.”
The following morning, the Hobbs contingent was back at the capitol in time for morning committee hearings. Escorted by State Sen. Gay Kernan’s office, one group of students found themselves in a Senate Rules Committee confirmation hearing for former NASA astronaut and Space Shuttle Columbia pilot Sid Gutierrez. Care not to take Gutierrez’ sterling resume for granted, senators questioned Gutierrez about possible business conflicts before unanimously appointing him to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and praising the New Mexico native for remaining loyal to his roots and the education he received in public schools. The next matter of committee business was consideration of a constitutional amendment to limit class size. Although a teacher-student ratio limit state statute already exists, it is regularly skirted by waivers, the sponsoring senator testified. Making class size a mandate if voters pass an amendment, he argued, would eliminate waivers. Yet another senator argued that if lawmakers simply went to voters every time they couldn’t enforce a statute, government would come to a standstill.
“There were some heated debates, not only in the Senate and in the House but also in the individual committee hearings,” HHS sophomore Rushi Mankad would later say of the experience. “It was heated but at the same time it was light-hearted. …It was a really neat experience.”
Later in the morning, half of the students would be introduced on the Senate Floor by Kernan and the other half on the House Floor by State Reps. Don Bratton, David Gallegos and Bob Wooley. Included in their introductions were short biographies that painted the students – ninth-through 12th graders – as a diverse but well-rounded group who participate in everything from athletics to Science Olympiad.
Her first trip to Santa Fe was eye opening for LeeAnn Holguin, a senior, who enjoyed the legislative process but was most impressed with the grandeur of the capitol and quality of the artwork lining its halls.
HHS junior Greg Brooks said he was impressed with the Legislature’s focus on the school system while classmate Alex Williams said she didn’t know that a proposal had to go through two committees and then confirmation to become law.
“You can always read about it but if you actually see it happen, then you understand it more,” freshman Aalysa Trevino said when summing up the trip. “Everyone has to work together to get things done. If they don’t work together then nothing is going to get passed.”