Candidate George knows value of education

Russ George

Russ George knows full well the importance of a good education.

“I started out on a farm, and education was everything for us,” he said.

The Rifle High School graduate, who today still lives in Rifle, went on to get a degree from Harvard Law School before returning home to work as an attorney. He then became a state lawmaker, serving two years as speaker of the House of Representatives, before going on to serve as director first of the state Division of Wildlife, then of the state Department of Natural Resources, and most recently of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Now that his latest governor-appointed job is coming to an end with the change in administrations, George finds himself being considered as the sole finalist for the presidency of Colorado Northwestern Community College.

He sees it as a fulfilling fit for someone who has experienced firsthand the benefits that education brings.

“As the years have gone by, I’ve appreciated more and more how important it is for people of rural areas or people of little means to have the opportunity of education, because it’s the way out for all of us,” he said. “Community college is the epicenter of that concept.”

George hadn’t been looking for a job change. The Republican had been appointed as Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s choice to head the transportation agency shortly after Ritter took office in January 2007. George had hoped to stay on under Democratic Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper, but he was informed by transition staff in December that Hickenlooper wanted to make a change in the department’s leadership.

George said he wasn’t given a reason for Hickenlooper wanting to go a different direction; nor did he ask.

“His not choosing me says to me that he’s got a different idea. And it all makes sense; he really should feel free to form his own cabinet and his own government,” George said.

On Friday, Hickenlooper named Denver developer and transportation consultant Don Hunt to the post. As Denver mayor, Hickenlooper appointed Hunt to a position in which he oversaw a $550 million infrastructure program.

George will look back at his time with the Department of Transportation as having been challenging but rewarding. It encompassed first dealing with the recession-related loss of one-third of the agency’s funding, then getting an infusion of $400 million in federal stimulus dollars but having to meet strict timelines and reporting requirements for using the money.

He cites as a key accomplishment by his agency the success it had, with Ritter’s leadership, in getting legislative passage of the FASTER bill to pay for transportation projects with new-vehicle-registration fees and fines.

“Unpopular as it is, it will pay enormous dividends of the kind the public really wants,” he said.

If appointed president at the college, George expects to be part of a different statewide funding discussion. It entails how to meet the demands of rising enrollments at a time when tuitions already are going up, and a recession-challenged public isn’t ready to shoulder a higher tax burden, he said.

The college’s president, John Boyd, resigned to become a community college president in North Carolina. George said Nancy McCallin, director of the Colorado Community College System, approached him about the vacancy shortly before he learned he wouldn’t stay on in his current job.

Since then, the directorship of the Club 20 Western Slope lobbying organization came open after Hickenlooper named Reeves Brown as head of the Department of Local Affairs. George said he probably would have expressed an interest in that job if the presidential opportunity hadn’t come up. Now he’s hopeful of being appointed president after an interview process that includes open houses in Rangely and Craig on Thursday.

“I can’t think of anything else that I would prefer to do,” he said.


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