Big decision

School districts can create brand-new innovation schools, state high court rules

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012. The school was one of 11 at issue in the lawsuit.

In a win for Denver Public Schools, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the state’s largest school district didn’t break the law when it approved “innovation plans” granting more flexibility around staffing, curriculum and scheduling for 11 new schools.

However, a lawyer for the state’s teachers union said the decision is “so illogical” that the union is asking the high court to reconsider the case — a move she concedes is a long shot.

State law says each school’s innovation plan must include evidence that a majority of teachers consent to designating it an innovation school. That status affords a school more autonomy by exempting it from certain state and district rules, including those in the teachers’ contract.

The Denver teachers union sued DPS after the school board gave the go-ahead to 11 new innovation schools between 2010 and 2012 without first obtaining the consent of the teachers.

That’s because unlike at existing schools, the teachers were hired after the innovation plans were approved. They then voted by secret ballot during the first week of school on whether to support the plans and waive the collective bargaining agreement. The high court notes that in all 11 cases, “far more than the requisite 60 percent” of teachers voted yes.

The union argued that timing doesn’t make sense.

“The way it’s supposed to work is you’re supposed to have an existing school with teachers, students, parents and a community — and if the idea arises that an innovation school would be a good idea, they could begin that process,” said Sharyn Dreyer, an attorney for the Colorado Education Association who represented the Denver teachers union in the case. “It’s silly to create something and then vote on whether it can be created, which is what they’re doing here.”

A Denver District Court judge initially ruled mostly in favor of DPS. The union appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision.

But in late April, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, siding with DPS once again.

In a split opinion, a majority of the seven justices found that barring school boards from approving innovation plans for new schools that haven’t yet hired teachers would be “directly contrary” to the intent of the innovation schools law. That law, passed in 2008, “was intended as an empowerment of, not a restriction upon, local school districts,” they wrote.

Requiring districts to wait would be harmful to all students and “especially to those from failing school districts,” they ruled. Schools’ innovation plans often include provisions such as longer school days that are meant to boost student achievement.

Three of the seven justices concluded the opposite. They found that the “plain language” of the law requires a vote of the teachers before an innovation plan is approved.

Dreyer said the union will likely ask lawmakers next year to amend the law to make it so.

Meanwhile, DPS officials said they’re pleased a majority of justices saw it their way. Denver teachers will continue to vote on their schools’ innovation plans, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said; the ruling simply makes clear that it’s OK for the school board to vote first.

“Our teachers vote in a fair, secret-ballot vote, and that is a critical part of the innovation process,” Boasberg said. If they vote in favor, the plan can immediately go into effect, he said.

“We certainly hope in the future to spend less time and money litigating on these issues because I think this kind of litigation ends up being very costly,” Boasberg added.

DPS is still awaiting a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in another lawsuit filed by a group of teachers over job protections. The justices heard arguments in that case in December.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.