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Teachers union sues Denver Public Schools over measure in reform law

Originally Posted by The Denver Post on January 29, 2014. Copyright © Written by Zahira Torres and Kevin Simpson. Read here.

A class-action lawsuit filed by the Colorado Education Association on Wednesday challenges the state’s teacher effectiveness law, citing concerns with a provision that it says has allowed Denver Public Schools to edge out qualified teachers.

The lawsuit follows months of wrangling between the school district and the teachers union over the “mutual consent” provision of the 2010 education reform law that implemented a new system for evaluating teachers.

Under the law, school districts are not required to “force” place veteran teachers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts, enrollment drops, or the turnaround process at low performing schools. Teachers can only be placed at a school if the principal wants them. If they cannot find a spot in a year, they are placed on unpaid leave.

“This is really a very surgical challenge to one aspect to the law and, at the same time, what we’d like to do is pursue a legislative fix,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman, whose union filed the suit on behalf of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “This a significant issue that we need to address. Otherwise, we’re going to end up in a situation where we have individual lawsuits across the state for years to come.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of political figures, business leaders and education reformers sharply criticized the lawsuit, claiming that despite its seemingly narrow parameters it could threaten the entire legislation, also known as Senate Bill 191.

“We believe 191 is foundational to the future success of the education system,” said Tamra Ward president of the business advocacy group Colorado Concern that is part of a broader education reform coalition critical of the move. “Any attempt to derail it is incredibly troubling.”

State Sen. Mike Johnston, the Denver Democrat who was the primary sponsor of the teacher effectiveness legislation, said in a statement that he is confident the law will withstand the challenge.

“A vast majority of Coloradans believe school principals should have the right to hire the great teachers they believe are the best fit for their schools, and this system is already working across the state,” he said.

Union officials said hundreds of tenured teachers have been removed from their positions and the school district is using the law to circumvent established procedures for dismissing many educators with good evaluations.

District officials said the system works and only 7 percent of the 1,200 tenured teachers displaced over four years have been put on unpaid leave. According to the district, 86 teachers were placed on unpaid leave after they were unable to secure a position. Of those teachers, 11 eventually landed a spot at a campus through the mutual consent process, 18 left the district and 57 remain on unpaid leave.

“Ultimately this is a matter for the courts to decide, but the principle of forced placement for teachers is a bad thing,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “It’s bad for kids. It’s bad for teachers and it’s bad for schools.”

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the mutual consent provision in the law as well as the district’s implementation.

According to the lawsuit, the provision has allowed the school district to remove veteran teachers from their positions and later push them out without meeting standards for dismissal and layoffs outlined in the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act. The act allows for a hearing process with an impartial officer.

Union officials want a judge to rule that school districts in the state cannot place a teacher, particularly those who received tenure before the 2010 change in the law, on unpaid leave without first going through a hearing process. The lawsuit also asks for a ruling that would require Denver Public Schools to reinstate effective tenured teachers who were placed on unpaid leave and grant them back pay.

Boasberg defended the constitutionality of the mutual consent provision in the law, which he said supersedes previously established measures.

“The argument that once a legislature creates a job protection for people that the legislature can never modify or diminish those job protections, I don’t think will be a winning constitutional argument,” Boasberg said.

The possibility of such a lawsuit became a flashpoint in the campaign for Amendment 66, the $950 million education finance measure strongly supported by the CEA. Critics said the union was backing a measure that would help fund the teacher evaluation effort while at the same time considering a lawsuit that could undo it.

Van Schoales of the reform group A+ Denver, also part of the coalition opposing the union lawsuit, called the legal battle one of the most important in Colorado, or nationally, in recent years. He also called the CEA “the ultimate hypocrites.”

“They’re all about espousing making teachers more professional and treating them like professionals, and at the same time they’re fighting — starting today — in the courts and in the legislature to allow for forced placement of teachers in places that either they or the leadership of the school doesn’t want them to work,” Schoales said. “Its crazy.”

Union officials question whether the school district is trying to replace higher-paid experienced teachers with younger novice teachers who draw smaller salaries.

“I suspect that it is a case of replacing expensive teachers with cheaper teachers,” Dallman said. “It may not be the entire reason, but at least from the outside it appears that that’s what is happening. The travesty is that Denver is driving out quality experienced teachers and that’s not what this new evaluation system was designed to do.”

Boasberg said schools have no incentive to hire a lower-paid teacher over a higher-paid teacher because DPS charges their budgets an average rate based on all the teachers in the district.

“The allegation that this is about money is completely false,” Boasberg said. “The only issue this is about is making sure that schools are able to select the best teachers for each school.”

Zahira Torres: 303-954-1244, or