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Mike Johnston, a former state senator and school principal, will be Denver’s next mayor.
Johnston, who was a leader in education reform policies in the state legislature before taking the helm of Gary Community Ventures, won 55% of the vote in a runoff election against Kelly Brough, a former business leader and chief of staff for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper.
“This race was about a big vision for what’s possible for Denver,” Johnston told supporters Tuesday night. “It’s about a dream of Denver. And we know there are cities that have tried to deliver that dream and have failed.”
In one version of that dream he described, a young Latina grows up in north Denver, becomes the first person in her family to go to college, becomes a public school teacher in the neighborhood where she grew up — and can afford to rent an apartment and later buy a home and raise her own children there.
“Maybe just down the block from a place, where, when her daughter gets old enough, she can walk her to school to the very school where she teaches. That is our dream of Denver,” he said.
Here’s what Johnston had to say during a mayoral forum in May about how he’d work with Denver Public Schools and try to have an impact on education, housing, and quality of life.
Youth gun violence is on the rise. After a shooting at East High School in March, the Denver Police Department agreed to station 14 police officers on 13 DPS high school campuses. What’s your position on police in schools? And who should pay for it?
My position from the beginning has been that schools should get to decide whether they need that support. … I think that in terms of who pays for it, that’s a decision we can make together. If the district has the resources, they should pay for it. If the district doesn’t have the resources, then the city needs to step in and figure out how we get it done.
Research shows a correlation between the presence of police in schools and discipline disparities, as well as unclear effects on school safety. If Denver police remain in schools, how would you ensure the district achieves its equity and trauma-informed goals?
This is a matter of who you approve to do this work, what training they have to do this work, and what their scope of authority is in the building to do this work.
When I’m a school principal, I do not need a Denver PD officer to be intervening in two students arguing in the cafeteria. I do not need an officer to be ticketing people for cursing in the hallway.
What you need an officer for is when you have a student that you know has access to a gun, who you are afraid is bringing one to school, and you need someone to assist in a pat-down of that student to make sure they’re not armed.
Would you consider mayoral control of the school board?
No, I don’t think that is a good plan.
I think that the democratic process works. There are a lot of people that are very motivated and very mobilized about the school board elections coming this November, probably more than I’ve ever seen in my adult life, because parents are really paying attention. … And I think their voices will be very powerful in what happens in the school board races and that they will get back the school board that they want and they feel like is responsive to them.
As indicated by the most recent state testing data, Denver Public Schools is not adequately supporting academic achievement among students of color or those who are low-income. What role can the mayor play in addressing the equity gap among students?
It starts with the belief that Denver students are all of our responsibility.
One of the most important ways that we can do that is looking at all of the learning time right now that happens outside of the school building. All the things that happen outside of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., where we know young people’s access to after-school programming to summer school programming to tutoring and arts and athletics and science camps … drive a big part of the passion that makes you who you are as a young person.
I want to expand programming to make sure young people, particularly those on free and reduced [price] lunch, have access to those opportunities to help them find their passion.
The other key area of partnership the city has let us down on is on mental health. … One of the things that Denver does is support Denver Health, which supports school-based health clinics around the city. We’ve not provided enough resources to make sure that in all of Denver’s high schools, we have an adequate supply of mental health counselors.
The DPS school board recently proposed a policy that would exclude standardized test scores from a public-facing information dashboard. Would you support building a platform at the city to share this information with families and community and to hold the district accountable?
I would not support denying parents access to that information any more than I would support denying parents access to information on their kid’s height and weight chart on a yearly physical check-in. And also know that even if you tell my kid he’s in the 15th percentile of height, that I don’t think that’s his total measure of worth as a human being.
There are different data points that you gather, and they tell you different things about the progress of your child. And what you want to look at is a well-rounded group of data that helps inform me on what to do next.
It is getting increasingly expensive to live in the city of Denver. This is causing many lower-income DPS families to relocate outside of the city. How will you address this challenge?
What I would do is build or convert 25,000 units across the city to become permanently affordable units. And what that means is that anybody that makes about $100,000 a year or less can be eligible to move into one of these units. And the way they’re structured is that you would never pay more than 30% of what you make for rent.
The next most important step is homeownership. … There I would do two things. One is to provide down payment assistance, which helps someone be able to buy a home for the first time. … And the other is to partner with organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Elevation Land Trust, where you can create land trusts where there are affordable homes you can buy.
You buy them at a discounted rate, and you sell them at a discounted rate. So you might buy a home for $300,000 instead of $600,000. But when you keep it for 10 years and you sell it at the end, you might only sell it for $350,000 … so that you keep it affordable for the next teacher or the next nurse or the next firefighter.
As mayor, what are the top three things you would do to make Denver the best place to raise children?
I think the three biggest drivers of people leaving the city will be: Do they feel it’s affordable? Do they feel it’s safe? And do they feel like they have access to great schools?
We’ve talked about affordability. And so I want to talk … about safety.
I believe we need 200 more first responders on the streets of our city — and I use the term first responders because what you know is you need different people to respond to different situations based on what the challenge is.
If you have someone in a mental health crisis, you actually don’t want to send an officer at all.
If you have someone who’s in a physical health crisis and potential overdose, you want to have a paramedic or EMT on site. You don’t necessarily need an officer.
But if you have places where there is an assault, or there’s a break-in, or your car’s been stolen, or there’s been a shooting, you do want to make sure that you have officers that can respond. Right now, we are so short-staffed on each of those roles.
Chalkbeat Senior Reporter Melanie Asmar co-moderated the May forum from which these answers are drawn and lightly edited the answers for length.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.