Education Commissioner Robert Hammond stepping down July 1

Colorado education commissioner Robert Hammond will retire July 1, he told the State Board of Education Friday.

Hammond has been the department’s commissioner since 2011. Prior to that he was deputy commissioner.

Hammond announced his retirement at a meeting of the State Board of Education today. He talk Chalkbeat Colorado that he decided to inform the board now, rather than wait until the regular May meeting, so that it would have ample time to consider transition plans.

According to a news release from the education department, Hammond told the state board that he is hoping to enjoy his retirement. “This is the right time for me as I want to make sure I make the most of my retirement while I’m able.” Hammond will turn 65 this year.

The announcement means the two top spots at CDE will be vacant as of this summer. Earlier this spring Hammond’s deputy commissioner, Keith Owen, announced that he was leaving state service to become superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson schools. The director of State Board relations Carey Markel is also leaving CDE to become Boulder’s senior assistant city attorney.

State board chairwoman Marcia Neal said the state has been fortunate to have Hammond as commissioner. “While not an ‘educator’ per se, there are few who could match his passion for education. This was exemplified by his constant efforts to provide a high level of support for school districts and their students.”

Hammond became commissioner during a time of major change for Colorado schools. Districts were still wrestling with budget cuts caused by the recession. Initiatives passed earlier by the legislature were starting to be implemented, including new academic content standards, a tougher rating system for districts and schools, and a new evaluation system for teachers and principals.

Public and educator anxiety about educational change has increased in the last two years as those programs have rolled out, with parents calling for reduction of testing and teachers raising concerns about use of test-derived student growth data for evaluations. Those concerns have taken a higher profile both at the State Board and in the legislature.

Given the increasing demands placed on districts by state education reform initiatives, Hammond has tried to focus the department on advising and helping districts roll out new content standards and implement the evaluation systems. A model evaluation system developed by the department is used by the majority of the state’s school districts. Providing such support has required something of a juggling act from CDE, as some of that work has been funded by federal money and private grants that are approaching their ends.

Hammond’s announcement comes less than four months after the seating of two new State Board of Education members shifted the tone of the board.

The new members, Republican Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Democrat Val Flores of Denver, have been vocal proponents of parent rights and local control of schools. They have intensified board skepticism about standardized testing and the Common Core State Standards.

Since January the board has passed resolutions allowing districts to seek waivers from some testing and eliminating accreditation penalties for districts with lower-than-required test participation rates.

Hammond and his staff are bound by law to implement and administer those initiatives and others, and there’s been some tension with the board because of that. The federal government has since rejected some of the board’s proposals.

Hammond told Chalkbeat that the new board wasn’t a big factor in his decision. “I’ve worked with a split board ever since I started this job, and I’ve been able to work with them. … I get along with every one of the board members. I do respect the right of the board to do what they want.”

The commissioner of education is the only head of a major state department who isn’t appointed by the governor. Education commissioners are chosen by the elected, seven-member State Board. Board members are elected on a partisan basis from congressional districts, and members’ educational philosophies range along a wide spectrum.

On the current board, Durham and Flores often ally with Republicans Pam Mazanec and Debra Scheffel of Douglas County. Democrats Jane Goff of Arvada and Angelika Schroeder of Boulder often are more supportive of current state education policy initiatives. Republican chair Marcia Neal of Grant Junction sometimes allies with Goff and Schroeder.

The two previous board chairs, Republicans Paul Lundeen and Bob Schaffer, were critical of many of the reforms passed by the legislature since 2008.

Board members of both parties are perennially frustrated by their lack of policy influence. Although the state constitution gives the board “general supervision” of the public schools, in reality the body can only do what the legislature assigns it to do in law. Many of the board’s duties are regulatory or quasi-judicial, including such things as teacher license revocations, deciding disputes between districts and charter schools and review of district applications for waivers from certain state eduction laws.

The announcement also comes at a time when a handful of districts and several schools may soon face state intervention because of persistent low academic performance. The department has been involved in helping some of those districts improve their programs.

As news of the announcement spread, reaction from various quarters trickled in. In a written statement, Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, called Hammond “one of the most accessible and collaborative people to ever hold this office.”

Dallman also said that Hammond “believes everyone in the education system has a valuable voice and made extraordinary efforts to travel the state and show his unwavering support for our teachers and education support professionals in delivering a quality education for every child.”

Former state board member Elaine Gantz Berman, a Denver Democrat, said Hammond’s retirement, while “too bad,” comes as no surprise because he has been discussing it for several months. She also said that, given the state board’s lack of authority, Hammond’s stepping down was unlikely to cause any significant shift in state education policy.

Here’s a sampling of other reactions:

“Colorado is a better place because of Robert. I can only hope we can find someone with his tenacity, his intelligence and his commitment to excellence in education to pick up the torch and carry it forward for the next generation of Colorado’s children.” – Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs and chair of the Senate Education Committee

“Robert Hammond has been called upon to do more than any commissioner in Colorado history. In the midst of treacherous political waters he has fundamentally reshaped the department’s relationship with educators in the field, charted an ambitious course for transformation and built a world-class team of entrepreneurs, innovators and experts who have made Colorado the nation’s most exciting laboratory for educational improvement. Hammond’s retirement is a staggering loss for Colorado, but he will leave a legacy of a department deeply driven to serve all educators and a state relentlessly committed to serving all children.” – Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a central figure in education reform legislation of recent years

“Commissioner Hammond has been a strong leader and partner during the seven years he has been at the Colorado Department of Education. … There is so much at stake as we move forward with this work, and the new commissioner will have big shoes to fill. We encourage the State Board of Education to be thoughtful in their search and hope they will create a transparent and credible process as they search for Commissioner Hammond’s successor.” – Interim Executive Director Krista Spurgin of Stand for Children Colorado

“Robert Hammond has been an extraordinary commissioner and will be greatly missed. Under his leadership, the Colorado Department of Education has distinguished itself as one of the most progressive and effective in the country.” – Bruce Hoyt, co-Chair of the Colorado Succeeds board of directors

“Colorado will miss the passion and dedication that Robert Hammond brought to this position. He has been a transformative leader right we needed him most.” – Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, senior Democrat on Senate Education