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State Board of Education meeting on Feb. 19. 2015.

State Board of Education / File photo

Rankin joining State Board “without preconceptions”

New State Board of Education member Joyce Rankin promises she’ll have an “open mind” in her approach to serving on a body that’s had its share of bumps over the last several months.

“I need to just get in there and listen and make my way from the beginning without preconceptions,” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, signaling a diplomatic approach to a board that has been split on issues such as testing.

A Republican from Carbondale, Rankin was selected Saturday to succeed board chair Marcia Neal of Grand Junction, who resigned earlier this summer citing board “dysfunction” and health issues.

Rankin, a former educator who’s married to a state representative, also said her understanding of the legislature will be useful in her new, unpaid position.

Although the board has a 4-3 Republican majority, its divisions usually have been philosophical, with Democrat Val Flores of Denver sometimes voting with Republicans and Neal voting with Democrats. In recent months the board sometimes has spent a lot of time on issues it didn’t have power to see through, including giving testing waivers to school districts.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Rankin wrote, “First meeting and swearing in ceremony….. Wednesday. Who better to put the ‘fun’ back into dysfunctional?”

Neal said, “I think Joyce is a lot like me. I think she’ll do a good job; she’ll be just fine.” Neal said she and Rankin talked on Sunday about the board.

Rankin was similarly diplomatic when asked about touchy issues such as the Common Core State Standards, PARCC and the overall burden of testing.

“The more local control in school districts the better. … Bring it closer to the kids and the parents,” Rankin said, adding that she’d like a reduced federal role in education. Local control also has been an emphasis of GOP board member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, who is expected to be chosen as chairman when the board meets Wednesday.

On testing, Rankin said, “I’m glad the legislature did something at the end – at least something was done. But she doesn’t think the debates over testing and other issues are finished. “We’re doing to be revisiting a lot of this stuff in the upcoming year.”

In January, the board voted 5-2 to endorse a Republican-sponsored bill that would have pulled Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing group, reduced state assessments and given districts more testing flexibility. That measure, House Bill 15-1125, later died in a legislative committee. The legislature ultimately passed a different testing reform bill.

Commenting on the board’s role in state government, Rankin said, “My job is take what the legislature does and work with that, and with the school districts.”

“Communication between the board and the legislature is a real important skill for a board member,” she said.

Rankin has a direct line to one legislator — her husband Bob, a House member who represents District 57 in northwestern Colorado. Rep. Rankin is a member of the Joint Budget Committee and has taken an interest in school finance issues.

Rankin has worked as her husband’s legislative aide and indicated that she plans to continue in that role. “I don’t see that’s going to be a problem at all,” she said, adding that her exposure to the legislative process should be an advantage in her board work.

She said she has “a real interest is rural Colorado. I think it’s really important to be a voice for rural Colorado and bring some of their concerns to the state board.” Rankin’s 3rd District includes 54 of the state’s 178 school districts, many of them small. The 3rd District representative traditionally has been the board’s strongest voice on rural issues.

Rankin said she’s concerned about funding inequities for rural districts, given that many of them don’t have the same ability to increase local revenues as some larger districts do.

“I think in the next couple of years we’re going to see the pinch” on school funding, she said.

Inspired by a teacher, Rankin said she decided when she was in 5th grade to go into education. She holds education degrees from Michigan State University and San Jose State University and worked as a teacher and principal in California. She hasn’t worked in education since moving to Colorado in 1981.

A 13-member Republican Party vacancy committee met for about five hours Saturday in Gunnison before selecting Rankin on the fifth ballot. The committee interviewed each of the eight applicants before voting.

“We had a very difficult choice because we had a number of highly qualified candidates,” said panel chair Frieda Wallison of Snowmass. She declined to provide the final vote count or the name of the second-place candidate.

Other applicants for the seat included two current members of local school boards, one former board member, a retired teacher, a parochial school principal and two anti-Common Core activists.

Rankin said she plans to run for her seat in the 2016 election.