Mutual consent

Union legal challenge to SB191 filed, bill on its way

Updated – Colorado’s largest teachers union Wednesday launched a two-pronged attack on part of the state educator effectiveness law, filing both a lawsuit and serving notice of a proposed bill in the legislature.

At issue is the mutual consent section of Senate Bill 10-191, which requires both principal and teacher agreement for placement of a teacher in a school. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and its statewide parent, the Colorado Education Association, claim the Denver Public Schools have misused the law by essentially firing teachers without due process.

The suit was filed Wednesday by five former Denver teachers and the DCTA. The filing, which had been expected for months, came in Denver District Court and names DPS and the State Board of Education as defendants. (The board is the default defendant in many suits involving education laws.)

Later in the day during a news conference at CEA headquarters, union leaders and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, announced plans to file a bill that would prohibit districts from putting teachers on unpaid leave if they can’t be placed in schools, but it wouldn’t repeal the full mutual consent portion of state law.

The bill will be sponsored in the House by Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.

“We have fought the good fight with the Denver Public Schools and avoided going to the courts and the legislature,” said Kerrie Dallman, CEA president. “We had great hopes that we would not get to this point,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, CEA vice president. Since negotiations with DPS didn’t work, the lawsuit and the proposed bill are needed, the two said.

Dallman and other CEA leaders repeatedly stressed that the two unions have no objections to the evaluation portions of SB 10-213. “This really is a surgical lawsuit,” she said. (Dallman and Oehlert both are members of the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, the advisory group that drew up recommendations for implementation of the law.)

Sen. Johnston, others react to suit

Sen. Mike Johnston, author of SB 14-191, later in the day defended current mutual consent provisions and said of DPS, “I haven’t seen any evidence to see they are using it incorrectly.” He said he’d talked with CEA last summer about possible tweaks to the law but that no agreement was reached.

The Denver Democrat also agreed that the lawsuit “will change nothing about the evaluation process. … I don’t think this is going to be a big distraction.”

Johnston could end up being the deciding vote on the Salazar-Todd bill. If that measure passes the House and reaches the Senate floor, it’s unlikely any of the Senate’s 17 Republicans would vote for it. If Johnston also votes no, that would provide an 18-vote majority to kill the bill in the 35-member Senate.

A statement from the Department of Education sounded the same note, saying, “The filing of this lawsuit does not impact the ongoing work of schools and districts to implement the law.”

Separately, the SBE released a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” with the lawsuit and “will defend this lawsuit to the fullest extent of the law.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg defended SB 10-191’s current provisions, saying, “The practice of forced placement is wrong. It is wrong for our students, wrong for our teachers and wrong for our schools. It is particularly harmful because it disproportionately impacts our highest-poverty schools where our kids have the greatest need for excellent teachers.”

A coalition of business and education reform groups criticized the lawsuit. The suit “would turn back the clock for Colorado teachers and students,” said a news release from the Great Teachers and Leaders Law Coalition.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, commented, “This lawsuit should outrage every student, every parent, and every taxpayer in this state. The same union that tried to take another billion dollars from Colorado citizens with Amendment 66, is now trying to create a protected class of substandard workers.”

Inside the lawsuit

The lawsuit argues that the mutual-consent provisions of the law and DPS’ actions are unconstitutional because they violate the state constitution’s ban on “impairment of contracts” and state laws on the firing of teachers. The suit also alleges that the district has violated teachers’ due-process rights.

The suit argues that non-probationary teachers have “a constitutionally protected property interest in … continued employment” that cannot lawfully be terminated without providing the procedural due process guaranteed by” the state constitution.

The class-action aspect of the suit seeks to include several different types of Colorado teachers, primarily those who held non-probationary status before May 20, 2010, when the mutual-consent provision went into effect.

The suit seeks a court ban on use of the mutual-consent provision for various kinds of non-probationay teachers and reinstatement and back pay for teachers who lost their jobs.

Based on the track record of prior public-policy lawsuits in Colorado, this case could take years to resolve if it goes up through the appeals process.

CEA lawyer Brad Bartels said, “I would be lying if I said that it would be short.” He said the first legal fight will be over whether the DCTA has made a proper claim for relief that can be adjudicated. If the suit passes that hurdle, there likely will be long proceedings over whether the case can proceed as a class action. The lawsuit makes claims for two main classes, a group of DPS teachers and all state teachers who were non-probationary before May 2010.

CEA leaders said they would pursue the lawsuit even if the Salazar-Todd bill passes because the suit seeks damages and reinstatement for those DPS teachers.

Individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit faced a filing deadline that was due to expire last summer. But the two unions, DPS and the State Board of Education agreed late last August to extend the deadline for filing a suit until Feb. 1 – Saturday.

The five teachers listed as plaintiffs are Cynthia Masters, Michele Montoya, Mildred Kolquist, Lawrence Garcia and Paul Scena.

The Great Teachers and Leaders Law Coalition is made up of civic, business and non-profit organizations including A+ Denver, Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Competitive Council, Colorado Concern, Colorado Succeeds, Democrats for Education Reform, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Donnell‐Kay Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, Piton Foundation and Stand for Children. Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Govs. Bill Owens and Bill Ritter are supporting the coalition’s criticism of the lawsuit.

The major elements of SB 10-191 are requirements for annual evaluations of principals and teachers, basing 50 percent of evaluations on student academic growth and the provision that teachers who have two consecutive ineffective or partially effective ratings lose their non-probationary status (commonly called tenure).

Read full text of the suit here.

Background on the issue from Chalkbeat:

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”