Teachers get job protections as board curbs schools autonomy: DPS’ latest vote roils some school educators and parents

“Rushing through a proposal without stakeholder input and agreement is not what this board ran on.”

Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools, greets students in Ms. Bienz's class at Kepner Beacon Middle School in Westwood. March 24, 2022.

Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools, greets students in Ms. Bienz's class at Kepner Beacon Middle School in Westwood. March 24, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

After hours of public comment and at times heated debate, the Denver Public Schools board of education voted 5 to 2 Thursday night to bolster teacher job protections by limiting the autonomy of a quarter of the district’s schools.

The virtual board meeting was marked by one board member predicting the vote will lead to an exodus of Black school leaders and others taking blame for school leaders who felt ambushed by the proposal. Still others felt they were being scolded for not valuing teachers. While the impact of the proposal remains unclear to even some board members, others are confident that the move will benefit teachers.

“I ran on teachers rights,” said board president Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán. “I ran on being able to get on this board and have these tough discussions and make these bold moves…We need to make our values known around these teachers.”

The vote means semi-autonomous schools known as “innovation schools” must follow the union contract, which sets limits on class sizes and provides an arbiter to settle grievances. Previously those schools could waive certain rules in the teacher’s union contract – something teachers at those schools agree to shelve in exchange for other freedoms. The vote on the “executive limitation” (board actions that direct the superintendent) would also ensure that teachers in all district-run schools have the same job rights and protections that are part of Colorado’s teacher tenure law, including the right to due process if they are fired.

The prospect of the change in policy sparked a firestorm of protest among innovation school leaders. They said the move is an attack on their unique school model, which was born out of the “school reform” movement that has defined DPS for the past two decades. While backers say the vote is a victory for teachers, others say it’s the first step in undoing a school model that helps meet the needs of diverse students.

“What they’re proposing takes us back 50 years to a traditional model where it’s admin versus teachers and there’s such strong divisiveness within the district, that’s not what education should be about,” said Alex Magaña, the executive director of Beacon Network Schools, which is composed of two innovation schools.

There are 52 innovation schools in DPS, about a quarter of the district’s schools. The state’s 2008 innovation law gives district-run schools that adopt innovation status waivers from certain state, district, and teacher’s union contract rules. The idea is that the freedom will allow them to innovate – set their own calendars and budget, choose academic characteristics to focus on, create their own curriculum and assessments – and improve. They can tailor the school to meet the unique needs of the students they serve.

Teachers at innovation schools are typically hired on a year-to-year basis, without tenure, so their buy-in is crucial. Sixty percent of union members in the school must approve any waivers, including job protections. They have a role in shaping, designing and guiding the school’s direction. But they can also be fired more easily and sometimes, say teacher union officials, can’t file grievances.

Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools, stands in the library at Kepner Beacon Middle School in Westwood. March 24, 2022.

Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools, stands in the library at Kepner Beacon Middle School in Westwood. March 24, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Magaña has worked in both innovation schools and traditional district-run schools.

As a young leader at a traditional school, he said it was a top-down approach. He managed classrooms, made sure the curriculum was being paced at the same rate as all the other schools, and he was held to outcomes set by the district.

Grant Beacon was a very low-performing school. When it got innovation status, Magaña said it empowered him to look at education differently.

“We brought in something unique and different, and the bottom line is we needed a commitment to the plan of what school and classrooms should look like and how we should support our kids,” he said.

The two schools in his network are now top performing compared to schools with similar demographics. He said innovation gives him the flexibility to work with the community and teachers about what the program should look like.

Magaña is afraid that with the board’s action, “it’s going to be the same pink color for everyone, and not every kid is the same. Every kid brings in unique gifts and talents that we need to do what we can to ensure we are meeting their individual needs, especially our families that have additional challenges.”

Others say the district should be focusing on extending the flexibility innovation schools have to all schools, while protecting teachers’ rights.

Denver’s teacher’s union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, supports the policy, though it wasn’t involved in drafting it. DCTA president Rob Gould said the union has been hearing “for years and years, (innovation) teachers are concerned about this.”

“It doesn’t make sense that the only way to do what they want to do for students is they have to waive their rights,” he said.

Gould said the push for protecting union contract rights stemmed from demands made by the union’s Black educator caucus, which was concerned about losing contractual rights. He said the contract gives teachers arbitration rights and also makes sure teachers have representation on decision-making committees. And for some innovation schools, things wouldn’t change much, he said.

“To me, a lot of the hype that’s out there [is] that this EL (executive limitation) is going to change the way we do things because what’s in the contract isn’t that different from what people are doing,” he said.

Gould maintains the change won’t impact many of the unique programs that innovation schools offer, such as enhanced special education services, garden and farm programs or a school’s extra focus on Black history.

“The challenge is people have worked under the assumption that they have to waive the contract in order to do what they want to, and that’s an incorrect assumption,” he said.

He said there’s a mechanism in the contract that allows schools to waive certain components and even single sentences of the contract. They don’t need to waive the entire thing, he said.

The union contract does ask that if teachers are asked to participate in school activities beyond the 40-hour work week, that they be compensated.

But innovation supporters say the proposal takes away potentially two-thirds of their waivers.

They say waivers from the teacher contract gives them flexibility in not only how they hire, structure and pay educators, but how they design learning.

Up until now, if an innovation school waived out of teacher tenure – called non-probationary status in Colorado – the school must replace it with ways to meet those rights and to hold teachers accountable. If blended learning or outdoor expeditions is a feature of the school, teachers agree to that and get a say in myriad school operations.

“Our teachers, they have the flexibility of their curriculum, they’re part of the assessment process, they have a strong voice,” said Beacon Network Schools’ Magaña.

With the new plan, he said schools are stripped of the ways to hold teachers accountable.

“How do I hold teachers accountable that don’t want to do blended learning, when this was agreed upon up front by the community, parents and teachers, that part is being taken away and the voices of our staff are being silenced?” he said.

Bailey Holyfield of the Luminary Learning Network, which counts six innovation schools, said the model empowers teachers with more rights, and some offer different but stronger protocols for due process.

“And that’s made possible through the waivers and the combination of waivers that they exercise,” she said.

Dozens of people at the meeting criticized the board for a lack of transparency and accused members of collaborating with teachers and parents to form the policy, arguing that it has caused unnecessary fear, division and acrimony.

“Why did you do this without consulting the community?” asked Kepner Beacon Middle School parent Lorena Limon in Spanish.

Others said they didn’t understand what problem the executive limitation is trying to solve. They urged the board to slow down and come to a collaborative solution.

“If we come together, sit at a table, talk with the DCTA, maybe we can build a great plan,” said Kartal Jaquette of the Denver Green School, the first innovation school in the district. “Rushing through a proposal without stakeholder input and agreement is not what this board ran on.”

Paula Zendle, a Denver Green School teacher and DCTA representative for her school, asked why the district renews plans for innovations schools if they find them problematic.

“Please don’t create a policy that penalizes schools that support teachers like my school,” she said. “The simple solution is for the district to not approve the innovation plans that are not meeting the teachers needs or rights.”

Parent and educator Laura Easley gave two examples of where flexibility from the union contract has allowed teachers to thrive, she said.

Her school has carried out “trust-based observations” for evaluating teachers instead of the standard district teacher observation known as LEAP. She said it’s been so successful that district officials have come to observe how it works as a possible model. Her children’s school also does many field trips that sometimes fall outside of school hours. Teachers at the school have elected to get extra time off and get paid the standard rate instead of being paid at the “time and above” rate.

“And because of that we’re able to make the field trips more affordable for all families,” Easley said. She’s afraid the new rules will no longer allow for that.

A few innovation teachers spoke in favor of the proposal. Christina Medina, a teacher at McGlone Academy in Montbello, said she knows decisions her school is making are made with the best intentions and in the spirit of efficiency, “but there’s little buy-in from teachers, especially teachers with experience.”

“I have been handed scripted curriculums and told when and where I need to go for trainings without giving a choice,” Medina said. “There’s no formal process for classroom teachers to provide input into scheduling and curriculum.”

She said if there were an issue, she and her colleagues wouldn’t have the right to arbitrate.

Another teacher at a different innovation school, Tara Underwood, said when she was hired, she wasn’t even told the school was an innovation school.

“There are innovation schools in some communities that are thriving, but in other communities, they are failing,” she said.  “When I was hired, I was unaware that my rights and protections as a teacher were waived and that instead of being hired for the year that I am hired at-will.”

She said the innovation plan at her school is five months expired and was written 10 year ago with minimal changes.

Several board members took responsibility for the turmoil they said they caused by failing to involve the community in the formulation of the proposal. An attempt to push the vote to a later date failed.

“I am concerned that we are responsible for the stress we have caused,” said board member Scott Esserman. “The stress came because instead of engaging with the community, instead of sitting down with impacted parties, we have introduced a policy that has created stress….We, as a board, have sowed division in our community when we needed to be building unity.”

“We’ve caused harm as a collective body,” said board member Michelle Quattlebaum, who argued for more time to make sure schools understood the full impact of the proposal. “We can do this, and we can do it right.”

Board president Xochitl Gaytan, however, one of the authors of the proposal, said it seemed like the board was moving toward consensus at a Monday work session.

“I don’t know what happened between Monday and now that….my colleagues must have received some pressure where that changed their minds,” she said.

Board members took offense to that comment.

Board member Tay Anderson worried the change will push some Black principals and innovation school leaders out. Several Black innovation school leaders in the city’s northeast neighborhoods have spoken out against the proposal.

“It was clear from day one that we needed more time to digest this to make sure Black leaders aren’t walking away, because Black folks aren’t going to point their fingers at you all on this board call, they’re going to point their fingers at their two African-American school board members and say what did you do to chase our Black leaders out. I refuse to be part of the Black exodus,” Anderson said.

Anderson and Quattlebaum, the board’s only Black members, voted against the proposal.

Some school leaders, meanwhile, said they believe many schools will reassess whether it is worth the time and effort to renew their innovation status in the current climate.

“All of us are thinking deeply about the tradeoffs in an ecosystem that doesn’t seem to appreciate the work that’s happening in our schools,” Holyfield said.

Superintendent Alex Marrero told the board his interpretation of the policy is it won’t hamper the flexibilities innovation schools have.

“If there are pieces of the DCTA agreement that prevent any school from implementing any unique programming, I think that’s my duty to work with said leader, said school to see if I need to engage DCTA and all of you,” he said.

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