money matters

Out-of-state donations stand out in Michael Johnston’s first campaign finance report in governor’s race

Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nearly 70 percent of the money donated to former state Sen. Michael Johnston’s gubernatorial bid in the first quarter of 2017 came from outside Colorado, records show.

The list of out-of-state donors includes several supporters of the national education reform movement.

They include Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; Howard Wolfson, director of education at Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York; and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the program that gave Johnston his start as an educator.

Johnston raised $632,834 between Jan. 1 and March 31, his campaign reported to the Secretary of State. Of that, $445,389 came from outside Colorado.

“The number is a big number,” said Paul Teske, dean of the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs. “I think that’s raised a lot of eyebrows.”

That Johnston would generate big support from out of state is not a surprise. He is considered a rising star in the Democratic party and his education reform bonafides are well known nationally. Johnston was the architect of Colorado’s landmark 2010 teacher evaluation law, which among other things ties teacher performance to the academic growth of their students.

Broadly, political races down to local school board races are increasingly attracting more out-of-state money.

Compared to the campaigns of the last two Democrats to win gubernatorial elections, Johnston brought in far more out-of-state money in the beginning stages.

About 10 percent of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s first-quarter campaign donations in 2010 came from outside Colorado, records show. Less than 1 percent of former Gov. Bill Ritter’s first quarter donations in 2005 were from out of state.

Johnston, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said his campaign is focused on building an in-state donor base, and he has spent the last four months traveling the state. He added that Colorado donors outnumbered out-of-state donors.

“We’re doing this $5 and $10 dollars at a time,” he said. “When people donate $2 or $3 or $4 dollars at a time, that’s as big of a deal to us as if someone puts in $1,000. It shows their commitment and investment to positive changes to the state.”

Campaign donations for gubernatorial candidates are capped at $1,150 per election cycle. Other political and issue-oriented organizations can raise an unlimited amount of money to influence elections but cannot coordinate with campaigns.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of the 7th Congressional District and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy are among the other Democrats seeking to succeed Hickenlooper, who is term-limited. Both Perlmutter and Kennedy recently announced their campaigns and did not file campaign finance reports.

Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, is also running for the Democratic nomination. He reported raising $152,372 during the first three months of the year.

Victor Mitchell, a former Republican state lawmaker, donated $3 million to his own gubernatorial campaign, records show. Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who also recently announced his Republican candidacy, reported no contributions during the first quarter.

The 2018 gubernatorial race should feature several education storylines.

Johnston has a long education policy track record, Kennedy named education her No. 1 campaign issue and Brauchler also mentioned education as a priority. Perlmutter’s wife is a former teacher and former president of the Jefferson County teacher’s union.

Johnston’s connections to the education reform community — both locally and nationally — is evident in his first campaign finance report, which was filed Monday.

Locally, charter school leaders Chris Gibbons of STRIVE Preparatory Schools and Kimberlee Sia of KIPP Colorado both donated. Damion Leenatali, executive director of Teach for America-Colorado, and Tony Lewis, executive director of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, also donated.

Nationally, donors included an executive for New York City schools, a deputy director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a policy director for Education Reform Now, a nonprofit affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

(The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to Chalkbeat. Two Chalkbeat board members — Gideon Stein and Sue Lehmann — also donated to Johnston’s campaign).

Johnston’s national support could work both for and against him, political observers say.

On the positive side, it provides Johnson an early fundraising edge, positions him as a serious candidate and could lead others in the education reform crowd to donate, too. But opponents could paint Johnston’s national supporters as outsiders trying to influence Colorado politics while also criticizing their education policy positions.

Robert Preuhs, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, sees potential warning signs for Johnston and other candidates from a similar cloth. He cited recent school board election results and anti-testing backlash as setbacks for education reform.

“I do wonder about him placing all his marbles in an education reform bag,” Preuhs said.

While Johnston acknowledged that education will be a major part of this campaign — his first campaign promise was free in-state tuition — it will be about more than that.

“There are a lot of people across the state and nation that are looking for leaders who are building something that is proactive and positive — leaders who can bridge the divide,” he said.

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”