getting to know you

Meet the Colorado lawmakers on the state legislature’s education committees

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Then state Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, on the House floor in 2015. Priola was elected to the state Senate and will serve on that chamber's education committee.

Plenty of familiar faces — and political fault lines — are returning next year to the state legislature’s education committees.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, and Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, will return as chairs of their respective committees.

Many topics the committees and the rest of the General Assembly will wrestle with next year should be familiar: the state’s testing system, funding for charter schools, and teacher hiring and training. New issues likely to surface include how some districts and schools are given waivers from some state policies, and how the state may respond to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Senate Education Committee is made up of Capitol veterans deeply entrenched in their respective ideological camps. The committee’s hearings could be fiercely partisan.

Republicans joining Hill on the Senate committee will be Sen.-elect Kevin Priola of Henderson, who previously served on the House Education Committee; Sen.-elect Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, who previously served in the House until 2014, when he was term limited; and Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton. Neville served on the Senate committee last session.

Joining the four Republicans are three Democrats: Sen. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs, Nancy Todd of Aurora, and Sen.-elect Rachel Zenzinger. Both Merrifield and Todd served on the committee last session. Zenzinger served on the committee between 2012 and 2014 before losing her Senate seat to Laura Woods. Zenzinger beat Woods in a hard-fought race last month that captured the state’s political interest.

Because Republicans control the Senate, they get more seats on the committee. Likewise, Democrats have control of the House and are able to appoint more members to that chamber’s committees.

It’s less clear how policy debates may develop on the House Education Committee, in part because of the high number of new members. Six of the 13 — yes, 13 — members are new to the committee. And of the six, three Democrats are entirely new to the General Assembly.

The House committee is more racially and geographically diverse than the Senate’s, which is made up of entirely white lawmakers from the Front Range.

The House committee includes Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, and Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida. Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, is black, and Rep. Clarice Navarro, a Pueblo Republican, is Hispanic.

The first day of the legislative session is Jan. 11.

Here’s the full list of members for both education committees. Members who were not on the committees last session are noted with an asterisk:

Senate Education
Sen. Owen Hill, Chair, R-Colorado Springs
Sen.-elect Kevin Priola, Vice Chair, R-Henderson*
Sen.-elect Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs*
Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton
Sen. Michael Merrifield D-Colorado Springs
Sen. Nancy Todd D-Aurora
Sen.-elect Rachel Zenzinger D-Arvada*

House Education
Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, chairwoman
Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, vice chairwoman
Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver
Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs
Rep.-elect Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village*
Rep.-elect Tony Exum Sr., D-Colorado Springs*
Rep.-elect Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango*
Rep. Jim Wilson, Ranking Member, R-Salida
Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton
Rep. Tim Leonard, R-Evergreen*
Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Colorado Springs
Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo*
Rep. Lang Sias, R-Arvada*

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.