Image: Michael Bennet
Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet waits to speak after he was chosen Saturday by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Ken Salazar.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/3/2009 4:38:59 PM ET 2009-01-03T21:38:59

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter on Saturday appointed Denver's public schools superintendent to fill a Senate vacancy that will be created by the promotion of Sen. Ken Salazar to interior secretary in the Obama administration.

The move surprised many Republicans and Democrats, who considered schools superintendent Michael Bennet a dark horse candidate for the Senate spot because of his lack of legislative experience. He has never campaigned for or held public office.

Bennet had been mentioned as a possible choice for President-elect Barack Obama's education secretary, but Obama chose 44-year-old Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of Chicago public schools for the Cabinet post.

Salazar's nomination to head the Interior Department will be considered by the Senate. He has two years left in his term.

Ritter praised Bennet as a proven leader and problem-solver in the both public and private sectors.

"This is a critical time in history. The economic challenges facing America and Colorado are unprecedented," Ritter said in a written statement. "Our challenges are so serious that it will take a new generation of leaders, a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem-solving to steer us through this."

In a statement, President-elect Barack Obama called Bennet an "excellent choice."

"Filling Ken Salazar's boots in the U.S. Senate is a tall order. But in selecting Michael Bennet, Gov. Ritter has made an excellent choice," said Obama.

"Michael Bennet perfectly reflects the qualities of the ruggedly independent state he has been chosen to serve. An innovator in the public and private sectors, he has shown himself willing to challenge old thinking and stale policies.

"His breakthrough work at the helm of Denver's schools has reflected that commitment, and established Michael as one of the nation's leading education reformers.

"He will be a breath of fresh air in Washington," said Obama.

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The Yale-educated lawyer in 2003 was tapped to be chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who then encouraged him to apply for the superintendent job for the 150-school city system two years later.

In June 2005, the Denver Board of Education unanimously appointed him superintendent of Denver Public Schools after he promised to provide each school with a highly skilled faculty and was able to get teachers to support merit pay. He also promised to track student progress and provide help.

The school board said Bennet delivered and students made strong improvements in reading, math, writing and science.

According to Denver Public Schools, the district posted a 6.2 percent increase in reading scores over the three years, more than four times the growth of the state. In math, there was a 6 percent gain, more than twice the growth of the state, and in the middle grades, Denver saw gains of 10 percent in reading and 9 percent in math.

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