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Colorado’s Dynamic Duo

Resilience and commitment define retirees’ tireless activism

With Barbara Clementi and Carole Partin, you get two rabble rousers for the price of one.

The Pueblo County, Colo., retired teachers are pretty much interchangeable. They even bear a physical resemblance in a few ways: They’re about the same height. About the same age. Both sport regal silver manes. And they share a lifelong commitment to activism.

This dynamic duo is on everyone’s speed dial for advocacy. If there is a local campaign for more school funding, Partin and Clementi are in the know. If a candidate supports public schools and is looking for volunteers to do phone calling and door knocking, they are foot soldiers as well as key strategists. If retirement security is on the line, they’re leading the fight to protect it. And if you’re wondering where to go caucus in a presidential election year, these ladies can help you figure that out, too.

‘Congratulations, You’re on the Board’

So it was no surprise that, after Coloradans voted to legalize marijuana, Clementi and Partin were on the short list of candidates when the Pueblo County Commission created a new board to license retailers. Now they’re pioneers as well as activists: They are members of the county’s first-ever marijuana licensing board, and they’re likely the first teachers anywhere to serve on such a panel.

Colorado Amendment 64 passed in 2012 and made the commercial sale of marijuana to adults 21 and over legal at licensed establishments. The law provides for marijuana licensing, cultivation, manufacturing, and testing, and retail marijuana facilities. Counties can either prohibit or allow the facilities, and Pueblo County decided to allow them. Clementi and Partin were chosen for the seven-member licensing board from about 30 applicants.

“Barb put her application in first and she twisted my arm to do it,” Partin says. “On the day they were due, I applied. And I thought, ‘There’s no way they’ll take both of us.’”

When the retired teachers got the news about their appointments, they were, of course, together. “We were in the grocery store buying stuff for a meeting of our retired group, and I got a text saying congratulations, you’re on the board. Then about two minutes later, Barb got the same text.”

Amendment 64 required the General Assembly to tax marijuana sales, designating the first $40 million in revenue from one specific levy—the excise tax—for the state’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program, a capital construction fund for schools. In all, customers are paying 30 percent or more in regular sales taxes, excise taxes, and special taxes for recreational marijuana at the register. 

That may sound like a bonanza for schools, but Clementi says there’s a misconception among the general public. The BEST money is for construction, not operating costs; if a school district needs more educators or books, the fund doesn’t help. So it is not the windfall it might appear to be.

“The reality is, most of that money is in a fund in Denver waiting for them to figure out how to use it to build schools,” she says. “We’ve not had raises in this district for four years. Teachers are buying their own supplies. We have an incredibly high poverty rate here, and nearly 70 percent of our kids get free or reduced-price lunch. We have needs in our schools and classrooms right now.”

In last year’s election, the Pueblo County citizens voted to spend proceeds of the marijuana special tax on scholarships for any student who graduates from a county high school and attends a local college. That’s a great start, but Partin wants to work with the County Commission to direct even more proceeds to classrooms and teachers.

Of course, she says, the irony in her position is this: Schools stand to benefit from consumers who are buying and using something that educators warn their students to stay away from. But Partin and Clementi point out that the law makes it clear that “only people who are 21 and over are able to legally participate in this activity.”

Now that marijuana has been legalized, they ask, why shouldn’t public education benefit as much as possible? Colorado schools are in desperate need of resources, the retired teachers say, especially since voters in 1992 passed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the most restrictive tax and spending limitation in the nation.  “This is the biggest boon to business we’ve seen in this county for probably 20 years or more,” Partin says. “If we don’t get on the bandwagon now, we may never see it.”

Longtime Activists

Given their track record of activism and engagement in community issues, their arguments will probably be hard to ignore. They’ve been advocating in one way or another for a long time.

Aside from membership on the licensing board, both are active in politics; Clementi is on the executive committee of the Pueblo County Democrats, while Partin is chair of the party’s rules and credentials committee. Partin headed up the local NEA for Hillary effort during the state’s March caucus, and while Hillary Clinton did not win the state, she did win Pueblo County.

Clementi was elected as an at-large member of the Pueblo City Schools Board of Education in November 2015, and of course, Partin was a key member of her campaign.  Clementi also represents the southern part of the state on the Retired Representative Council for the Colorado Education Association (CEA), and she chaired the host committee for the NEA Representative Assembly in Denver in 2014. In addition, she is a coach for the NEA Foundation’s Institute for Teaching and Learning, working with teams on projects to build collaboration between local unions and school district management.

Partin is a former president of the local CEA affiliate and is now president of the Pueblo Retired Educators Group. Both women are members of Colorado AFSCME Retired, another group of union retirees that lobbies for retirement security. And although Partin didn’t win a 2010 bid for the Colorado House of Representatives, Clementi was active in her campaign.

The two friends met in high school. They didn’t travel in the same circles, but years later they reconnected as teachers in the same middle school. “That solidified everything in terms of our activism, friendship, and common interests,” Clementi says.

Doing What They Love

They knew they’d remain active in retirement, “but neither of us wants to work 100 percent of the time,” says Partin, who takes care of her two grandchildren a couple days each week. “So we do our activism together.”

“And,” Clementi adds, “we’re not doing any one thing 100 percent of the time.” Their partnership also allows them to give each other breaks. But when one “subs” in, that has the potential to make matters more confusing.

“People get us mixed up all the time,” Partin says. The silver hair doesn’t help. “Barb has had gray hair since her 30s. I used to dye mine and then I decided I didn’t want to do the chemicals anymore.” Partin also adds—jokingly, of course—that her good friend has aged “much worse” than she has.

Both of them see education and activism as connected and relish the opportunity to spend their retirement doing what they love.

“Our activities with the NEA and CEA helped us see the bigger picture and how everything fits together, and that activism is really the only voice that you have as a citizen,” says Clementi. “And we see how important it is to public education, to the foundation of democracy in our communities, and how much we have lost when we, as citizens, haven’t been active.”

Says Partin: “We realized a long time ago that in order for us to make a difference in teaching, we had to get involved in our local union. But we also saw how important it was to be involved on the political end.” Their commitment even motivated them to volunteer for a campaign outside their district, to help change the makeup of the state senate.

Even when they don’t win, “we always make some progress,” says Partin.

Her partner in activism puts it this way: “Every day in the classroom you have some wins and some misses. You go home and say, ‘Alright, what can I do differently for that student tomorrow?’ You go back and try again. One of the things we taught our kids in middle school is resilience. And we can’t ask them to be resilient if we’re not ourselves.” 

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