Social Studies Loses One of Its Strongest Advocates

State board chair Marcia Neal resigns, citing “dysfunction”

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Todd Engdahl on June 11, 2015

Marcia Neal, chair of the State Board of Education, announced her resignation Thursday morning. In an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, Neal said board dysfunction was one reason for her decision.

“You know how dysfunctional we are, and that is really difficult for me,” Neal said. “I find it really difficult to deal with that.”

In a letter sent to fellow board members Thursday morning, Neal wrote:

“While under better circumstances, I would like to stay on the board to work toward common goals and mutually agreed upon aspirations for improving learning for all students. In fact, I don’t hear any board discussions about the benefits of our work in supporting student learning – making students better prepared for the world they’ll encounter after graduation. We don’t talk about how we’re improving their education to truly make them fully prepared for college or a career of their choice. If we’re not working for these things, what are we doing to meet our responsibilities for preparing our students for success? Unfortunately, I do not see that the current board is interested in working together and reaching consensus.”

(Read the full letter here.)

She also said health issues were the other reason for her decision. Neal is still recovering from the effects of a fall last winter.

“It’s been a struggle,” she said.

Neal’s departure comes at the same time as education Commissioner Robert Hammond is preparing to leave the department. He announced his retirement, effective later this month, in late April.

The composition of the seven-member board and the tone of its meetings changed after new members elected last November took their seats in January.

The new members were Republican Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Democrat Val Flores of Denver. Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, was re-elected to a second six-year term last November.

Neal was elected chair in January. Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder was elected vice chair, something that didn’t sit well with the board’s three other Republicans, Durham, Pam Mazanec of Larkspur and Deb Scheffel of Parker. The vote for vice chair was by secret ballot. Because there are only three Democrats on the panel, one Republican – presumably Neal – voted for Schroeder.

The new board started things off with a bang in January, with members voting 4-3 on a surprise Durham proposal to allow school districts to request waivers from the first part of standardized testing this spring. The move ultimately came to nothing because the attorney general ruled that neither the board nor the department had the legal power to grant such waivers.

At meetings later in the spring, the board – often with majorities led by Durham and including Mazanec, Scheffel and Flores – criticized the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, refused to set cut scores for last fall’s 12th grade science and social studies tests and declined to accept staff recommendations for changes in upcoming high school graduation guidelines. (For background on the board’s tumultuous spring, see this story about the April meeting and this article about its May session.)

In her letter, Neal also criticized fellow board members for lack of communication and cooperation.

“Sadly, our current board has become dysfunctional,” she wrote. “Past protocols were very effective with regard to communicating and the sharing of information. Those protocols are now largely ignored by several board members.”

For the last five months board meetings often have been marked by confusion and delay as Neal at times struggled to maintain procedures and keep to the agenda, particularly when proceedings were interrupted by Durham or Flores.

Neal also expressed concern about high-level departures from the department. “We’ve recently had a surprising number of resignations and notices of retirement. One has to wonder how much of the board’s seemingly destructive behavior has contributed to this exodus.”

In addition to Hammond, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen and Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley are leaving. Owen will be superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson schools, and Hawley is taking an administrative job with Denver Public Schools. Carey Markel, the board’s top administrative officer, left for a job with the Boulder city attorney. And Thursday afternoon Janelle Asmus, CDE’s chief communications officer, informed colleagues that she is leaving to take a communications position with the Adams 14 district.

The board is just starting its search for Hammond’s replacement and has yet to hire a search firm. Elliott Asp, special assistant to Hammond, was chosen Wednesday as interim commissioner.

Neal’s replacement will be chosen by a Republican Party vacancy committee in the 3rd Congressional District, which she represents. She said she expects that to happen by August. That person will have to run for election in November 2016.

Neal is a retired social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who was first elected to the board in 2008. She previously served as vice chair and often was a swing vote on the board.

Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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