Former Pueblo charter leader Stephen Varela appointed to State Board of Education

The Colorado Department of Education.
Offices of the Colorado State Board of Education. The newest member of the board is Stephen Varela of Pueblo. (Nicholas Garcia )

Stephen Varela will represent Pueblo and western Colorado on the State Board of Education.

Varela, 38, is a military veteran and father of four children ages 7 to 15 who attend schools in Pueblo. Varela previously served three years on the board of Pueblo charter school Chavez Huerta Preparatory Academy, including time as board president. He holds a master’s degree in social work and volunteers helping other veterans in the community, he said.

A vacancy committee of Republican Party members chose Varela to replace board member Joyce Rankin of Carbondale, who resigned earlier this month. Varela will represent the Third Congressional District on the State Board of Education. 

Stephen Varela (Courtesy Stephen Varela)

Varela was sworn in Thursday. His term runs through November 2024, when an election will determine who will serve the remainder of Rankin’s term through January 2027.

Varela becomes one of three Republicans on the nine-member board and one of three new members. He is the first Latino to represent CD-3 on the State Board and the only board member with school-age children.

In an interview, Varela said he wants to represent the perspectives of parents, work to improve educational quality and reduce achievement gaps, and make sure all students have opportunities after high school, whether going to college or pursuing a trade. He also wants to reduce unnecessary burdens on teachers and school systems and do more to support student mental health.

“Our public schools face many challenges as far too many students aren’t learning grade level material,” he wrote in a press release. “We need to take the politics out of our classrooms, return to teaching basics, honor parents, strengthen collaboration between teachers and parents, and support our high performing, dedicated education professionals.”

Varela said he’ll also be an advocate for southern Colorado and represent the diversity of rural Colorado. 

Varela ran for the Colorado Senate last year but lost to incumbent Democrat Nick Hinrichsen. 

Varela faced controversy during his time on the Chavez Huerta board, the Pueblo Chieftain reported, including calls for his resignation related to a basketball tournament being moved to make room for a Republican Party event and staffing reductions. Varela also helped the school secure a $30 million Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST state school construction grant to expand the middle and high schools.

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When Varela resigned from the charter school board in November, he told the Chieftain it was to spend more time with his family.

In an interview, Varela said he believes much of the criticism came from misunderstanding the role of the charter school board — they aren’t involved in day-to-day operations — or was politically motivated. He said the people who criticized him didn’t attend board meetings until he was a state Senate candidate.

Varela said he grew and learned during his time on the charter board and looks forward to learning more in a new role.

“I’m going to give it my all and do my best for my community,” he said.

The State Board of Education is an independently elected body that hires the education commissioner, sets academic standards, oversees the school accountability and teacher licensure systems, hears charter school appeals, and sets rules for grant programs.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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