A retirement party is an occasion for saying nice things, and education Commissioner Robert Hammond received a highly complimentary send off Tuesday.

Hammond is leaving the Department of Education at the end of month after serving as commissioner since 2011. (See this story about Hammond’s April announcement and this article about his thoughts on Colorado education.)

The atmosphere was mostly smiles and good feelings in the ornate lobby of the Department of Education as scores of CDE employees and figures from the state’s education community gathered for a farewell reception.

But Hammond is leaving at a time of division on the State Board of Education and uncertainty about the future leadership of the agency. Board chair Marcia Neal generated shock waves last week when she announced her resignation, citing divisions on the board (see story).

Both Neal and Gov. John Hickenlooper injected those uncertainties into Tuesday’s celebration.

Neal said the board needs to “remove that focus on political squabbles and return our focus to the children.”

The governor said, “Our [state] school board shouldn’t be partisan. … We should be looking for ways to bring people together.”

And Hammond sparked prolonged applause from the crowd when he called Neal “a pillar of strength.”

What they said

Although the commissioner of education is the only state department chief who’s not appointed by the governor, Hammond’s retirement party drew both Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also director of the Department of Higher Education. Here are some comments.

  • “What’s remarkable about Robert Hammond and the board [is] no one’s given in to frustration. … There was no limit to what Robert and his team did, and the board did.” –Hickenlooper
  • “I can’t believe you and Marcia are leaving at the same time. It seems karmically unjust.” – Hickenlooper
  • Hammond is “a good man who cares about the right things” and who’s navigated “the choppy seas and shark-infested waters that we refer to as public education.” – Garcia
  • “He set out to build a first-class organization, and he did that.” – Neal
  • “No one else has earned retirement more than Robert has.” – Interim Commissioner Elliott Asp

What he said

Hammond’s remarks focused on his efforts to build a strong team at CDE and to provide more service and less regulation to districts. Here are some quotes.

  • “We have to keep our eyes on how education will change in the future.”
  • “We all have to come together despite our differences for the children of this state. … The success we have experienced in this state is because of all of us working together.”
  • “What’s amazing is what we’ve been able to accomplish,” given all the education changes and new programs launched by the legislature in recent years.
  • “Our children will live up to our expectations.”

Faces in the crowd

Garcia was the joker among the afternoon’s speakers, telling the crowd, “I see the crazies on the right and the crazies on the left, the crazy reformers and the crazy traditionalists.”

Among those crazies was a good mix of Colorado education names, including:

All State Board members plus former members Elaine Gantz Berman and Paul Lundeen … state Sens. Andy Kerr and Nancy Todd … a selection of superintendents including Harry Bull of Cherry Creek, Scott Murphy of Littleton, Bruce Messinger of Boulder and DPS’ Tom Boasberg, among others.

Education interest groups also were well represented, including Ken DeLay from CASB, Kerrie Dallman of CEA, Scott Laband of Colorado Succeeds, Bill Jaeger from the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Van Schoales from A+ Denver and Nora Flood of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Changing of the guard

Tuesday’s event was more than Hammond’s retirement party. it marked the end of an era for CDE. Not only are Hammond and Neal leaving, but top Hammond aides Keith Owen, Jill Hawley and Janelle Asmus also are headed to new jobs. The board’s top staffer, Carey Markel, already has left. Other departures are expected ahead of the hiring of a new commissioner and the inevitable management changes that will bring.

The department’s overseers, the seven elected members of the sometimes-fractious State Board, are in for their own changes. A 3rd District vacancy committee will select a replacement for Neal, and the Republican-controlled board will elected new officers after that.