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DPS lawsuit: Meet teachers who reject claim district is getting rid of good educators

DPS teacher Zachary Rowe.
DPS teacher Zachary Rowe.

Last week, we introduced you to the teachers behind a lawsuit against Denver Public Schools. The teachers claim that DPS is using a provision of the state's landmark 2010 teacher-effectiveness law to get rid of good teachers -- which they say isn't the law's intention. Furthermore, the teacher-plaintiffs claim that what DPS is doing is unconstitutional.

But not all teachers agree with them. We spoke with three teachers -- two from DPS, one from Jefferson County -- who disagree with the lawsuit.

Zachary Rowe is a North High School teacher. Now in his fifth year with DPS, Rowe has served on North's personnel hiring committee, which works with the principal to decide which teachers to hire. Having the ability to choose who North hires has been a critical part of the school's recent success, Rowe says. "When we've had openings, we've been able to go out and find teachers who work within our team and have the chops that we think are necessary to get results," he says. "My main complaint against the lawsuit is that it would strip schools of the autonomy that personnel committees have in vetting, going out and observing, interviewing and ultimately hiring teachers."

Here's a video featuring Rowe.

Rowe is opposed to a practice called "direct placement," sometimes referred to as "forced placement." Before the 2010 teacher-effectiveness law, widely known as Senate Bill 191, was passed, teachers who were "reduced in building" because of a drop in enrollment, for example, and who couldn't find another teaching assignment on their own were direct-placed into an unfilled position. Historically, the schools that received the most placed teachers had the lowest test scores and the most open jobs.

Now, under Senate Bill 191, a teacher who's been "reduced in building," or RIBed, has one year or two hiring cycles, whichever is longer, to find a "mutual consent position," meaning that both the principal and the teacher agree that she's a good fit for the job. If she can't find such a position, the teacher is put on indefinite unpaid leave.

That's the part that the teacher-plaintiffs and the Denver teachers union believe is unconstitutional. They feel DPS is using Senate Bill 191 to get rid of good teachers without the due process they're entitled to. In addition, the teacher-plaintiffs argue that some RIBed teachers -- especially those who are older and higher up on the pay scale -- have been effectively blacklisted from getting a job. Even though they have good evaluations, older RIBed teachers struggle to get mutual consent, they say.

Rowe doesn't believe it. "I was interested in the 'Scarlet R' argument: that when a teacher is RIBed, they're put on a blacklist. But that wasn't my experience having participated in the process," Rowe says. When he was on North's personnel committee, Rowe says he was never explicitly told whether an applicant had been RIBed before.

"It's never been, 'We are now interviewing a RIBed teacher,'" Rowe says. Instead, he says the committee would look for several things, including whether candidates had classroom teaching experience and whether their colleagues spoke highly of them.

Plus, Rowe says, "the data suggests that most of these teachers are hired elsewhere." That's true: According to DPS, 1,240 nonprobationary teachers (which means teachers who've had three years or more of positive evaluations) have been RIBed since Senate Bill 191 went into effect. Of those, 825 have found mutual consent positions.

Continue for more on teachers who disagree with the lawsuit.

Lisa Nicholson has been an educator in Jefferson County for fifteen years -- thirteen of them as a classroom teacher and the last two as an instructional coach. While JeffCo isn't experiencing the same issues around the implementation of Senate Bill 191, Nicholson has been paying attention to what's happening in Denver. She's opposed to the lawsuit because she doesn't want to return to the days of direct placement. Nicholson says she's taught with teachers who were placed -- and it can be bad for kids.

"We constantly had teachers in that building that didn't want to be there, but it was the position that was open -- and that wasn't effective for kids," Nicholson says of one "hard-to-serve" school where she taught. "We call it the dance of the lemons, where those bad teachers were passed from school to school."

A lawsuit claims DPS is getting rid of good teachers without due process.
A lawsuit claims DPS is getting rid of good teachers without due process.

Nicholson questions whether the DPS teachers who couldn't find mutual consent positions and who were put on unpaid leave were truly good teachers, as the lawsuit claims. (The five teacher-plaintiffs with whom Westword spoke claimed a history of positive evaluations. Some had won teaching awards and performance bonuses.)

"I've heard that these teachers in Denver were all effective," Nicholson says. "My question is, what was that measurement for effectiveness? Because we are now upping that evaluation.... If they all were effective, why couldn't they get a job in another school? There were reasons why they weren't rehired."

The so-called dance of the lemons is bad for kids, she adds: "We should be making decisions based on kids' needs, not adults' needs. That's the heart of it."

DPS teacher Lauren Fine agrees with that sentiment.

"I'm saddened to see this type of lawsuit," she says. Like the other teachers who disagree with the lawsuit, Fine is opposed to direct placement. Placing teachers in positions without mutual consent, she says, feels like "we're just placing widgets into a hole. Like, okay, there's an empty hole and we'll plop you there. That de-professionalizes our profession in a time when I'm excited about the progress we're making.

"This lawsuit makes us take steps backwards and not forwards."

Fine adds that she has not seen evidence that DPS is using the mutual consent provision of Senate Bill 191 to get rid of older teachers. (The five teacher-plaintiffs we spoke to were all older than 45.) "I have not seen that happen at all," Fine says. "In a time of stress, we reach for conspiracy theories because we want to understand the situation around us, and yet I caution us to be very thoughtful in how we jump to conclusions."

More from our Education archive: "Denver Public Schools is getting rid of good teachers, says rep behind here-and-gone bill."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com


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