Decision day

LIVE: Colorado voters to decide local school funding, partisan control of State Board of Education

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Denver voters fill out their ballot at the Webb municipal building.

Voters across the Centennial State today will decide whether to approve a record number of local tax increases to fund schools and to determine partisan control of the State Board of Education and the state Senate. Chalkbeat reporters will be updating this blog throughout the day with news from the campaign trail, analysis and results.


in contempt

This lawmaker was jailed after trying to get his child out of a state test. Will he remain on the House education committee?

PHOTO: Denver Post File

One of the newest Republican members of the House Education Committee was sent to a Jefferson County jail on Friday for violating the terms of his divorce by attempting to opt out one of his children from the state’s English and math tests.

A spokesman for House Republicans told Chalkbeat Friday after the news of State Rep. Tim Leonard’s 14-day jail sentence that party leadership has not discussed stripping Leonard of his seat on the committee that vets proposed education legislation.  

House Democrats did not hesitate to weigh in.  

State Rep. Tim Leonard
PHOTO: Denver Post
State Rep. Tim Leonard

“It is absurd to imagine Rep. Leonard taking a seat on the House Education Committee … and making important decisions for Colorado’s students when a judge has prohibited Rep. Leonard from making educational decisions regarding his own children,” Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said in a statement.

Leonard, a Republican from Evergreen, was ordered Friday to spend two weeks in jail after being found in contempt of court for attempting to make decisions for his children — something that is prohibited in his divorce.  

The Colorado Independent first reported Leonard’s sentence.

Leonard was found in contempt in September on two counts:

One charge concerned his attempt to opt a child out of a federal standardized test. He had previously been found in contempt for attempting to opt another child out of another test in 2014. The magistrate said she found it “mind-blowing” that Leonard would think he could try again because it was a different child and a different test.

The second charge was related to his refusal to allow one of his children to use an iPad at school, though all students in that class were issued tablets. Leonard said he was concerned about the amount of screen time his kids experienced.

Incoming House Minority Leader Patrick Neville issued the following statement to 7News after learning about Leonard’s situation:

“This must be a very difficult time for Representative Leonard and his family. I know he cares deeply for his children and my thoughts and prayers are with the Leonard family.”

Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.