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Garcia gets big education portfolio

See bottom of this story for 9News video of Garcia’s inauguration speech
Updated – Within hours of his inauguration Tuesday morning, it seemed clear that Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia would be the Hickenlooper administration’s go-to person on education policy.

Late Monday afternoon, Gov. John Hickenlooper nominated Garcia to be director of the Department of Higher Education, pending consultation with the attorney general and legislative leaders about an elected official serving as a department head.

At midday Tuesday, during a luncheon for students who participated in an inauguration essay contest, Hickenlooper unveiled an executive order creating a new Education Leadership Council.

Where will the council be located? In the lieutenant governor’s office.

Who will chair it? Joe Garcia.

Ever since Hickenlooper chose Garcia as his running mate last year, there’s been widespread speculation – even an assumption – in education circles that Garcia would play a key role on the issue in a new administration.

Such talk also was prompted by the fact that Gov. Bill Ritter made Barbara O’Brien, his lieutenant governor and former head of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the point person for education, including such initiatives as the P-20 Education Coordinating Council and the quest for Race to the Top funds.

A Harvard-educated lawyer, Garcia has been president of Colorado State University-Pueblo and of Pikes Peak Community College. He held a cabinet job – director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies – during the administration of Democratic Gov. Roy Romer. Farther back in his past, Garcia was legal counsel to the Colorado Springs District 11 school board.

Garcia also served with O’Brien as a co-chair of the P-20 council, which was most active in the first years of Ritter’s administration and whose work lead to the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids legislation. The Education Leadership Council created by Hickenlooper Tuesday is the successor to Ritter’s group.

A look at the new council

The executive order reads, “To deliver on the collective promise of the state’s recent education reforms and continue the cross-system dialogue that recently facilitated broad agreement on the direction of the future and functions of the state’s education systems, it is imperative that the Office of the Governor continues to provide a meaningful forum through which the state’s leadership can examine the current status of education policies, analyze the systems’ near-term opportunities and challenges, and make recommendations to the Governor, General Assembly, and governing boards regarding potential long-term improvements to the state’s education systems that facilitate the goals of closing achievement gaps in schools, reducing the high school dropout rate, and dramatically increasing the number of postsecondary degrees and certificates earned by the state’s citizens.”

The council is to have at least 18 members, including Garcia, the commissioner of education, the chairs of the State Board of Education and Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees, the executive director of the Early Childhood leadership commission and the director of the Department of Health and Human Services. (Reggie Bicha, a Wisconsin state official, has been nominated for that post.) Those are all busy people, and, as is usual, the executive order says “designees” may fill the slots.

The council is also to include “at least” one school board member, superintendent or principal, teacher, charter school administrator, community college administrator, four-year college administrator, business representative and infant development specialist. The council will be allowed to accept private donations to cover expenses. (Read the full executive order here.)

In a statement Monday on the DHE job, Hickenlooper said, “Joe Garcia is in a unique position to wear two hats in state government. He is a known leader with tremendous expertise in education. He also understands the challenges facing higher education because he’s led a community college and a university. Allowing Garcia to serve in two roles will save money and serve the taxpayers of Colorado without compromising the work of the lieutenant governor’s office or the Department of Higher Education.”

The statement did add, “While it’s unclear whether legislation may be necessary, Hickenlooper is working with leaders in the General Assembly and the attorney general to clarify that the lieutenant governor can concurrently serve in a cabinet position if appointed and confirmed by the Senate.”

The director of DHE supervises a department that has various regulatory, data-gathering and promotional duties, and he also serves as the chief staff person for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. While the commission has some regulatory powers, such as approving tuition plans, Colorado’s highly decentralized higher ed system gives broad powers and independence to institutional presidents and boards of trustees.

The agency has been somewhat of a revolving door in recent years. Ritter had two higher ed directors – David Skaggs and Rico Munn – and there also were two directors during the latter part of Republican Gov. Bill Owens’ administration.

Some commission members have complained that the shifting cast of directors has made it difficult to establish a clear strategic direction for the commission.

The citizens’ panel that drafted the recent higher ed strategic plan debated the issue of whether the director should be appointed by the governor or by the commission, which had that power in the past. But the panel settled on a recommendation that the governor nominate the director after consultation with the commission. (Read the higher ed strategic plan.)

The commission, armed with new powers conferred by the 2010 higher ed tuition flexibility law and the recommendations of the strategic planning panel, seems to be moving toward a more active role in higher ed policymaking. That’s a direction not welcomed by some college presidents.

So Garcia’s becoming director of DHE would put the Hickenlooper administration directly in the middle of the often-tricky politics of Colorado higher ed.

Higher ed leaders endorse Garcia

But, Hickenlooper apparently touched a lot of bases before naming Garcia to the DHE post. The news release announcing the move included endorsements from Bob Schaffer, chair of the SBE; CSU Chancellor Joe Black, Garcia’s former boss; CU President Bruce Benson, who worked with Garcia on the P-20 council; Mesa State President Tim Foster; community colleges President Nancy McCallin, and CCHE Chair Jim Polsfut.

Foster, a DHE director under Owens, said, “His knowledge of state government and his collaborative nature are exactly what Colorado higher education needs today.”

Polsfut, who’ll be sitting next to Garcia at CCHE meetings, said, “I’m certainly looking forward to working with Joe Garcia in his new capacity, as Colorado faces the challenge of maintaining a high quality yet affordable system of public higher education in an environment of diminishing resources.” (News release announcing DHE appointment.)

Garcia’s role seems to be unprecedented in Colorado history. Until a constitutional change in the mid-1970s, lieutenant governors were elected independently (not on a ticket with the governor) and presided over the state Senate.

Governors Dick Lamm, Romer and Owens – each of whom served multiple terms – all had rocky relations with some of their lieutenants, most of whom received fairly minor assignments.

Colorado’s other key K-12 position, commissioner of education, is being filled by interim Commissioner Robert Hammond while the SBE conducts a search for a replacement for Dwight Jones. A new commissioner may not be named until late spring or early summer.

See this news item for what Hickenlooper and Garcia said about education in their inauguration speeches

Garcia’s speech (9News)