Just eight days after Jacquelyn Archuleta-Staehlin ascended to one of the highest posts at New Mexico’s Public Education Department, the former lawyer and partner at Cuddy & McCarthy is already stepping down. 

The resignation of the deputy cabinet secretary comes in the wake of Cabinet Secretary Kurt Steinhaus’ retirement from PED, announced on Jan. 28. The department has had three secretaries in the past four years.

“After some consideration of my professional goals as well as my personal commitments, I do not believe that my continued employment as a deputy secretary is a good fit for either the department or myself,” Archuleta-Staehlin said in a statement to Searchlight New Mexico.

According to a PED press release, Archuleta-Staehlin was hired as a deputy cabinet secretary charged with overseeing the yet-to-be-released Martinez/Yazzie Action Plan, a roadmap for crucial and wide-ranging reforms in the state’s education system. The plan is specifically designed to address the needs of students with disabilities, Native American students, English learners and economically disadvantaged students.

Archuleta-Staehlin’s appointment shook the disability rights community. Advocates and parents said they had seen her represent school districts across New Mexico in legal and administrative battles against students with disabilities — children who sought educational supports mandated by law. 

“DRNM was surprised by the appointment of Jacquelyn Archuleta-Staehlin to the Deputy Secretary position at the NMPED,” Disability Rights New Mexico, an advocacy group, told Searchlight in a statement. “For decades, Ms. Archuleta-Staehlin has represented many school districts across the state against students with disabilities and their families. As disability rights advocates, we have naturally been disappointed when her work has stood in the way of educational supports and services that these students require and are entitled to under state and federal law.”

Critics questioned why she was hired for the post, given her history.

“She counseled districts in non-compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which deprived students of their civil rights to public education,” said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque attorney who represents families of students with disabilities.

At one point, Cuddy & McCarthy represented 80 percent of New Mexico’s 89 school districts, according to the firm’s website, and Archuleta-Staehlin was one of the firm’s experts on disability law. But critics said she used her knowledge against parents of students with disabilities. 

Her legal tactics included “bullying, stalling, stonewalling, blowing off, and intimidating” parents and advocates, said Zoe Migel, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with and advocating for children with autism. 

Migel said she was present for several “facilitated IEPs” — meetings with facilitators present — where Archuleta-Staehlin served as counsel. In one instance, she led a meeting where more than 20 district officials were present. Two other advocates said they had also experienced meetings with her where a large number of school officials appeared. Doing this, all agreed, had the effect of intimidating parents. 

“Are [these strategies] in the best interest of the child and family? Absolutely not,” Migel said. “That’s why you have IDEA, to protect these families from that kind of stuff.” 

Upon hearing about Archuleta-Staehlin’s new post, Amanda Owens, a parent and Santa Fe Public Schools teacher, told Searchlight she had little faith that Archuleta-Staehlin “would use her influence and authority to address the needs of disadvantaged students.” She first encountered the lawyer in Ruidoso Municipal Schools and later in Santa Fe. In both instances, Owens said Archuleta-Staehlin made it “unnecessarily difficult” to get services for her son, who has a traumatic brain injury.

Archuleta-Staehlin’s departure comes as PED launches a search to replace Kurt Steinhaus, who served as cabinet secretary for one and a half years.

“An ongoing and national search for qualified leadership aligned with the goals of the Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham administration is underway,” PED told Searchlight in a statement. 

In the interim, the department is being led by Mariana Padilla, the Children’s Cabinet director. 

The department is “in the midst of leadership changes,” PED acknowledged. However, “all the employees in the department are committed to delivering high-quality work for the children of New Mexico regardless of who sits in leadership positions.”

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...