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.

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.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.