James Mejia said that, if he is elected mayor of Denver, education will be one of his top priorities and that he’s ready to get started. “I’ve studied at the elbow of the last two mayors. I’ve watched how decisions have been made and how teams have been formed,” he told the Colorado Independent.
“When I first went to work for the city government, I knew I had found the right place for me. There was immediate feedback, there was direct impact on people. You can do things that matter to people. This is where I was raised, it is where my daughters are being raised. I want to make sure they have the same opportunities I had, and not only my daughters but everyone’s daughters,” he said.
Mejia is one of two declared candidates who have already received enough votes from Denver residents to become mayor, having been elected to an at-large position on the Denver School Board in 1999.
While he does have the distinction of having won a city-wide election, most of his career has been spent not as an elected official but as a manager.
Former mayor Wellington Webb hired him to run the city’s parks and recreation department, and current Mayor John Hickenlooper tapped Mejia to manage construction of the city’s recently opened $425 million LEED-certified criminal justice center, which was completed on time and under budget. Mejia is currently CEO of the Denver Preschool Program.
Mejia also served in the Webb administration as the executive director of the Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations and as deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.
The Denver native has degrees from Notre Dame and Princeton.
He said it’s no given that kids today will enjoy the same level of opportunities their parents enjoyed.
“I would like to have a positive impact. I would like to help make sure the next generation can reach their potential just as my generation was able to. It sounds really simple,” he said, “but it is very, very difficult to execute. You look at unemployment and at high school graduation rates, and it is very hard to see how the current generation will have the same opportunities we had. Those of us who are able to effect that have a responsibility to do so.”.
His own parents were educators. His dad taught in DPS for 37 years and his mother ran a daycare center in their home, while raising 13 children, all of whom went to college. When the youngest went off to college, so did Mejia’s mom, who got straight As before heading to graduate school in her 60s.
“They never told us you have to do this or you should do this; they just modeled it. My parents are my role models,” he said. “I understand the profound impact education can have on people. I’m the product of a lot of expectations and sacrifice and hard work by some pretty amazing people,” he said.
Today, he said, only 7 percent of kids entering North, West or Montebello high schools graduate and go to college. “That’s not OK in a place like Denver. It’s not OK anywhere,” he said.
“I get stuck on that one, I really do. We have to think about that.
“People say the mayor can’t do anything about education. I say not only can the mayor do something but the mayor should do something. How we educate our kids is how people perceive our city. It determines whether people and companies relocate here.”
Mejia said the most important factor shaping the quality of schools is the quality of the teachers who work there.
“We need to create a more hospitable environment for teachers,” he said.
One way he would do that is to make the city’s recreation centers and cultural facilities free to teachers.
“We want teachers healthy. We want them happy. We want them engaged. Let’s do what we can to raise the level of professionalism among teachers across the board.”
He said the mayor of Denver has an obligation to spend time at the capitol lobbying for the city. He said he would push the state for better funding of the Auraria campus.
“That is the only higher learning campus most DPS graduates will ever see. Auraria has the highest low income attendance, highest students of color. Enrollment has increased dramatically. They have classes in trailers, but their funding is at 2007 levels,” he said.
“That is absolutely a state issue, but the mayor needs to use the bully pulpit to talk about what Denver should be receiving. The mayor needs to work closely with the Denver delegation. The mayor needs to testify on Capitol Hill to ensure adequate funding for Auraria. The mayor should be a player on how state funding is allocated.”
He said he is in favor of granting in-state college tuition to undocumented residents who satisfy certain requirements.
“I’m very much in favor of the Dream Act, both in the state and on the national level. It is something I would advocate for. Kids have no decision over where they were born or whether or not they came into this country. If they are willing to play by the rules and be attentive and good students and they have grown up here then they deserve the right to got to college and pay in-state tuition. We should allow them the same opportunity that other kids have.”
Coming tomorrow: Mejia talks about the city budget, immigration, marijuana, his qualifications for the job, attracting business to Denver, the green economy, problems in the police department and other subjects.