final ruling

Colorado’s high court: There’s no such thing as teacher tenure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
The Colorado Supreme Court.

The Denver teachers who challenged a landmark state law that allows school districts to put certain experienced educators on unpaid leave lost their cases Monday.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the educators, who sued Denver Public Schools in 2014 alleging that the state’s largest district violated their rights to due process. Some of the teachers had lost their positions in schools and failed to get re-hired by a principal within a set period of time, which led the district to put them on unpaid leave — a move the teachers argued amounted to getting rid of them without cause or a hearing.

The district argued it was simply following a 2010 state law, known as Senate Bill 191, that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments. The law allows teachers who lose their positions because of circumstances such as student enrollment declines to be put on unpaid leave if they don’t find new positions within 12 months or two hiring cycles.

The high court sided with the district, ruling that because Colorado law “provides for neither ‘tenure’ nor ‘permanent teachers,’” Denver Public Schools did not violate teachers’ rights. Instead of tenure, state law allows teachers to earn “non-probationary status” after three years of effective evaluations. Teachers with that status are entitled to a hearing before being fired.

The 2010 law also eliminated the practice called “forced placement” in which non-probationary teachers who lost their positions were assigned to open positions at other schools.

Denver district officials didn’t like forced placement. Teachers were often placed at schools where a majority of students were living in poverty, which officials said unfairly resulted in the district’s highest-needs students being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there.

After Senate Bill 191, the district began giving teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they would look for permanent “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them, within the 12 months or two hiring cycles.

The Colorado Supreme Court issued rulings in two related lawsuits Monday. One was filed by a group of seven Denver teachers, including some who’d been put on unpaid leave after losing their positions due to enrollment declines or program changes at their schools. The other was filed by a single teacher who suffered the same fate but for a different reason.

Attorneys for Denver Public Schools argued that putting teachers on unpaid leave is different than firing them. Under the law, teachers on unpaid leave are put into a “priority hiring pool.” If they find a mutual consent position, they are hired at their previous salary level.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district welcomes the high court’s decision upholding the provision of the law that ends forced placement.

“Forced placement was wrong: wrong for students, wrong for teachers, and wrong for schools, and it is good that practice will not come back,” Boasberg said in a statement.

The teachers were represented by attorneys from the the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. President Kerrie Dallman said teachers are “very disappointed by this pair of unreasonable decisions that strip away rights of experienced educators.”

“It’s baffling that during a time of teacher shortage, when we know teacher pay and working conditions do not stack up to the demands of the profession, that our courts would discard employee due process rights,” Dallman said in a statement.

She said the ruling was especially disappointing given that the backers of Senate Bill 191 “explicitly asserted that they were not repealing the due process rights of experienced teachers.” Dallman said the union would take its fight back to state lawmakers “to fix an education system that continues to operate with serious flaws to the detriment of our schools and students.”

Gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, a former educator and state senator who sponsored Senate Bill 191, said in a statement that “we all share the same goal: to do what’s right for Colorado’s kids.”

“With today’s decision,” Johnston said, “we can move forward in that spirit and work together to improve achievement for students across the state.”

Several local education reform advocacy organizations praised the decision.

Luke Ragland, president of conservative Ready Colorado, called it a “thorough and uniform repudiation of the teachers’ union and their radical view” and “a win for students and families.”

Colorado Succeeds, a non-partisan group that represents the state’s business community, called the ruling “a significant victory for Colorado’s students, educators, and education leaders.”

“To meet the diverse needs of students statewide, it is essential that principals have the authority and flexibility to hire who they want,” president Scott Laband said in a statement.

The Colorado Children’s Campaign, an advocacy group known for its work on health and education issues, also characterized the ruling as “a major win for Colorado’s kids.”

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.