Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court
At 55, Cynthia Masters wasn't ready to stop being a teacher. The energetic single mom had come to the profession late in life but had quickly grown to love it. She was drawn to working in high-needs schools with high-needs kids, and her job as a special-education teacher at Centennial K-8 in Denver Public Schools seemed to be a perfect fit.
"I might teach academics, but I teach children about life," she says. "I tell every single one of my special-ed kids that they can do it. I make them believe they can do it."
But in the fall of 2012, Masters was put on indefinite unpaid leave. It wasn't because she flunked an evaluation or because DPS decided she was a bad teacher. Rather, Masters was a casualty of a controversial 2010 state law that the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Colorado Education Association believe DPS is using unfairly to get rid of tenured teachers, many of whom are older.
In the four years since the law was passed, nearly 3,000 DPS teachers have lost their positions due to what the district calls "reduction in building," or RIB for short. The reasons that teachers are RIBed vary: Some lose their jobs because their schools are "turned around" or closed. Others are cut because school enrollment drops. In Masters's case, she was RIBed due to a decrease in the number of special-ed students.
Of those 3,000 teachers, 1,240 had at least three years' worth of positive evaluations, including Masters. And not all of them have been able to find new jobs. According to the law, still widely referred to as Senate Bill 191, RIBed teachers with three years of positive reviews — officially known as "nonprobationary" — who can't find a position within a certain time frame are put on unpaid leave, a move that both unions believe violates the state constitution.
"I never thought it would be used the way it is," says Milanne Kolquist, now a former DPS teacher. "They're using the law to break the law, I think."
But DPS officials say the district is simply following the law as written and insist that there's no conspiracy to fire veteran teachers. Instead, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg says some longtime teachers are out of work because DPS is no longer required to place them under a policy that Boasberg refers to as "forced placement."
Before Senate Bill 191, if a nonprobationary teacher got RIBed and was unable to get another assignment at a school of her choice, the district would "force-place" her in an unfilled position at another school. The DPS schools that got the most placed teachers tended to have an abundance of low-income kids, poor test scores and open teaching jobs.
"Forced placement is a civil-rights travesty," Boasberg says. "It's particularly inequitable because our kids in poverty, who most need the best teachers, have instead had force-placed upon them teachers whom their school does not want to have.
"And that is fundamentally wrong."
Now, if a nonprobationary teacher loses her position, she's placed in a temporary assignment for one school year or two hiring cycles, whichever is longer. If she's unable to find a permanent job within that time frame, she's put on unpaid leave. She's still a DPS employee, but without a paycheck.
Brad Bartels, an attorney with the Colorado Education Association, says these teachers are victims of DPS's brand of musical chairs. They didn't lose their positions because they were bad teachers, he insists: "They just didn't have a chair when the music stopped."
Seven DPS teachers and the DCTA have now sued the district. (The statewide CEA is representing the DCTA in the matter.) The lawsuit is a class action, and the plaintiffs represent several different classes, including all teachers in Colorado who were considered nonprobationary prior to the passage of Senate Bill 191 and all nonprobationary DPS teachers who were RIBed and ended up on unpaid leave.
Westword spoke with five of the seven plaintiffs and found that they have several things in common: All are older than 45 and have good teaching records. Upon losing their positions, all five applied for hundreds of teaching assignments within DPS but, inexplicably to them, received just a few interviews. Only one managed to avoid being put on unpaid leave or being forced into early retirement.
"I applied for over 700 positions in the district," says plaintiff Michelle Montoya, who got RIBed in the fall of 2010. "I thought, 'I can deal with this. I'm going to go get a job. My skills are definitely needed.' And I just never got a second interview."
These plaintiffs aren't alone. While most of the 1,240 nonprobationary teachers who have been RIBed have found permanent jobs, about 200 resigned or were left with little choice but to retire. In total, 86 teachers have been put on unpaid leave — and 57 remain there.
That's not a huge number, but it was enough first to drive DPS and the union into arbitration and then to spur the lawsuit. It also raised concern among state lawmakers, two of whom introduced a bill in February aimed at stopping the practice of dismissing nonprobationary teachers without cause.
But the bigger question for students and parents, say the teachers, may be this: In its enthusiasm to implement Senate Bill 191, is DPS also getting rid of experienced teachers who could help struggling kids?
Senate Bill 191 was controversial from the start. Introduced late in the 2010 legislative session by Senator Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat and a former principal at a high school in Adams County, it was aimed at developing a better way to evaluate teachers' effectiveness and at cutting them loose when they don't measure up, regardless of tenure. The bill pitted superintendents, business leaders and school reform groups against teachers' unions, most of which were staunchly opposed. The biggest fights were waged over how to evaluate teachers and what consequences they should face if they didn't pass muster. Opponents didn't like that the bill based half of a teacher's evaluation on student academic growth, and they struggled with the concept of punishing teachers who work with challenging kids. The legislative battle was heated and emotional; more than one lawmaker broke down in tears.
A provision of the bill that got less attention had nothing to do with teacher effectiveness. Instead, it laid out what should happen when a teacher loses her position because of a drop in enrollment, a "reduction in building," a school closure or a school turnaround (a strategy in which drastic measures — such as firing the staff — are taken to improve a school's test scores). The provision says that if a nonprobationary teacher is displaced, she has one year or two hiring cycles to find a "mutual-consent" position (one in which both the teacher and the principal agree on the placement) or be put on unpaid leave. She's allowed to keep job hunting — and if she eventually finds a position in her district, she'll be hired back at her old salary and benefits level.
Boasberg was a fan of Senate Bill 191, as were most of the DPS Board of Education members. (A vocal minority was opposed). The superintendent even testified at the State Capitol in support of the bill. Although he spoke of the need for a better teacher-evaluation system, DPS was already coming up with one on its own: Three months earlier, the district had received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp the way it measured teacher effectiveness. The argument for the revamp was that the old system didn't do enough to weed out bad teachers. It allowed for only two ratings — satisfactory and unsatisfactory — and in DPS, about 99 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory.
At the Capitol, Boasberg also emphasized the dangers of forced placement. By that time, DPS was already taking steps to restrict its use: Before Senate Bill 191 passed, Boasberg encouraged the school board to vote to limit the use of forced placement — or "direct placement," as it's officially known — in the district's lowest-performing schools. "It's a serious thing to consider, because we're very clear that we don't want direct placement, period," Boasberg told the board at a meeting on April 22, 2010 — ten days after Senate Bill 191 was introduced. "I think that's what the motion says very clearly. But the question is, until direct placement is eliminated...what do you do?"
It turned out that DPS didn't have to wait long. After a contentious debate, the legislature approved Senate Bill 191 and Governor Bill Ritter signed it into law on May 20, 2010.
Just four months later, Masters became one of the first DPS teachers to be RIBed post-Senate Bill 191 when she lost her full-time position at Centennial, which was then an elementary and middle school in northwest Denver.
Masters's teaching career started in 1999, when she began substituting after suffering an injury at her previous job. She was working on a master's degree in psychology at the time, and when she finished, in 2001, several people suggested that she apply for a two-year DPS program that allows professionals with college degrees to take graduate-level courses to become licensed teachers while getting experience in the classroom. Masters focused on special education because, as a substitute, she'd enjoyed teaching summer-school classes for students with serious disabilities.
In 2004, at the age of 48, she set out to find a teaching job. It wasn't hard. "There were a million, zillion special-ed positions," she recalls. She applied for about ten and was interviewed for several of them, including a spot at Centennial. "The principal called me up right away, one hour later, and offered me the position," Masters says.
After three years of good evaluations, Masters earned nonprobationary status. She loved her job but began to notice that principals and teachers were increasingly stressed about student test scores and whether their school would be next on the chopping block. (In 2013, after Masters left, Centennial underwent a redesign in an attempt to boost test scores. Most of the staff was let go, the middle school began a two-year phase-out, and the curriculum was changed to a project-based expeditionary-learning model.)
In the fall of 2010, amid the pressure to increase performance, Masters says, she and the principal disagreed about how best to serve students with learning disabilities. Soon thereafter, the principal approached Centennial's four special-ed teachers and told them that there weren't enough special-ed students to justify all four positions.
As per the RIB protocol, all four teachers had to re-interview for their jobs. Afterward, Masters says, the principal told her that her position was being cut down to part-time.
Immediately, Masters got a letter from DPS's human-resources department warning her that due to Senate Bill 191, she'd be put on half-time unpaid leave if she didn't find a mutual-consent position within one year. The letter frightened her; she'd heard of the new law, but didn't know that it could be used to put her out of a job. So she began applying for open positions within the district, thinking that she could leave her part-time gig at Centennial if she found a full-time job somewhere else. But unlike in 2004, no one called her back.
Instead, Masters was temporarily placed in a part-time position at Fairview Elementary School. Fairview had just one special-ed teacher, a 21-year-old who'd gotten the job through Teach for America, a nationwide program that gives bright college graduates five weeks of training and then sends them to teach in high-needs districts for two years. Masters says that when she got to Fairview, the principal asked her to mentor the young special-ed teacher because Masters had experience; she agreed, and later found out that the young teacher had a college degree in financial planning. Masters says that teacher quit at the end of the year.
As for Masters, she spent half of her time at Fairview and half of her time at Centennial. But in February 2011, the Centennial principal told Masters that due to a drop in special-ed students, she was RIBing the other half of her job. Again, Masters scrambled to apply for open positions. She attended several DPS job fairs, at which RIBed teachers were supposed to be given priority. In all, she applied for more than 300 jobs and finally landed a couple of interviews, including one for a position for which a colleague had recommended her.
"No call, no nothing, after the interview," Masters says. "I thought, is somebody talking about me? You start wondering. Then I started meeting other people at these job fairs, and they said the same thing was happening to them. These were tenured teachers."
In the fall of 2011, Masters was put on half-time unpaid leave and was temporarily assigned to a part-time position at Swansea Elementary. Instead of teaching special ed, she was the in-house substitute and also taught reading to Spanish-speaking students. She enjoyed that part of it and tried to make the best of her year, all the while applying for jobs. But when the school year ended, Masters still hadn't found anything. Her pay soon stopped.
Masters, who also taught yoga at a rec center for two hours a week, went on unemployment in the fall of 2012 and began picking up more fitness classes through Denver Parks and Recreation to make ends meet. She fell behind on her mortgage but never gave up on teaching. Finally, in mid-2013, she was hired by the Gilpin County School District. It meant a $15,000 cut in pay and a forty-minute commute each way, but Masters, now 57, felt grateful.
When the union asked her to join the lawsuit, she jumped at the chance. "I didn't think it was fair to see what they were doing to teachers," she says of DPS. "I was on fire by that time.... It seemed like they were just trying to save money, run a business and push out the union."
Almost immediately after Senate Bill 191 passed, union leaders started hearing from DPS teachers like Masters.
"We talked to many experienced and sometimes award-winning teachers about their inability to...obtain an assignment," says attorney Bartels. "It was truly mind-blowing for me. The level of their experience and skill was striking, and to not even be able to be interviewed by a principal was very significant."
And the problem persisted. There were 689 RIBs in the 2010-2011 school year, according to DPS statistics, and 667 RIBs the following year. In the 2012-2013 school year, that number increased to 750. So far, this year, DPS reports 339 RIBs.
Of all those RIBed teachers, DPS says it placed 296 in temporary positions while they looked for jobs. Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, noticed a pattern: DPS was increasingly placing teachers in positions that were not in their area of expertise, he says, such as a first-grade teacher being put in a high school. "What we see are not necessarily good matches," Roman says. "It's almost like setting up people not to succeed."
The following plaintiffs experienced just that.
• Michelle Montoya, now 48, was RIBed in September 2010. At the time, she was the student advisor in charge of discipline at Trevista at Horace Mann, an elementary and middle school in a tough northwest Denver neighborhood. In Montoya's second year, she and the principal clashed over the use of detentions and suspensions, which the district was under pressure to reduce. At the beginning of Montoya's third year, the principal hired a new school counselor and a new assistant principal, who began leaving Montoya out of discipline decisions. The principal soon told her that her position was no longer needed; she was being RIBed.
Montoya took a semester-long leave of absence and was then placed in a temporary position as an English teacher at George Washington High School. She'd never taught high school before but felt she did well. However, by the end of the school year, Montoya had yet to find a mutual-consent position, despite applying for hundreds of jobs.
In the fall of 2011, Montoya went on full-time unpaid leave. She began receiving unemployment and started a used-clothing-and-antiques business to keep afloat.
Finally, in August 2012, she landed a teaching position at CEC Middle College, a career and technical high school in DPS. Montoya was thrilled. But she wonders whether the principal knew her situation. "I don't know if he would have hired me if he knew that I was on unpaid leave," she says. "I think there was something that was out there that was telling principals to not hire [tenured] teachers who'd been placed on leave. I think there's a stigma attached to it, like I'm a bad teacher. And that's not the case."
• Paula Scena, now 53, actually volunteered to be RIBed. In February 2011, her principal at Contemporary Learning Academy, a DPS high school for at-risk kids, told the four science teachers that due to a drop in enrollment, one of them had to go. Scena took one for the team, figuring it'd be easy to find another position. It wasn't. She only got two interviews, one of which resulted in her being hired at Trevista. But the position didn't last long. In November 2011, three months after she started, the teachers learned that the low-scoring school was being "turned around" and that they had to re-apply for their jobs. The majority were not rehired, including Scena.
Scena applied for about a hundred jobs but was unable to find one. So in the fall of 2012, she was placed as a "teacher on special assignment," or TOSA. For an entire year, she and nine other RIBed teachers went from one southeast Denver elementary school to the next, substitute teaching. She felt like she and the other TOSAs served as a warning to teachers who still had jobs: "This could happen to you."
Facing the possibility of unpaid leave, Scena was considering buying her way into early retirement when, in August 2013, she got a call from Archuleta Elementary. One of the school's Teach for America hires hadn't shown up, and there was an open fifth-grade position. Scena got the job. Still, she feels she was mistreated. "You feel used and discarded," she says.
• Milanne Kolquist, now 67, was among six teachers RIBed in February 2012 at Merrill Middle School, where she taught English as a Second Language. Kolquist became a teacher later in life and was hired at Merrill in 2009. In her time there, she earned nonprobationary status as well as bonuses because her students did so well.
After applying to about 150 positions with no success, Kolquist was placed at Marrama Elementary in the fall of 2012. But she wasn't licensed to teach elementary school, so the principal had her put up bulletin boards, make copies and cut out flash cards. Kolquist was miserable and complained to the DCTA, which convinced DPS to switch her placement to Noel Community Arts School, a middle and high school.
Kolquist kept looking for jobs and got a few interviews. But when she asked the principals at Merrill and Noel for letters of recommendation, she says, they ignored her requests. Although she had a file full of glowing references from prior principals and colleagues, she had nothing from her most recent positions. "They claim that there's no stigma attached to being RIBed, but you go to apply for a job and you have no reference," Kolquist says. "It doesn't matter how many great things you can say and show about yourself. If you don't have that recommendation, they're not interested."
In January 2013, nearly a year after she was RIBed, Kolquist was invited to a reception for DPS teachers whose students made outstanding academic growth for three consecutive years. But even that didn't help. This year, she reluctantly made the decision to retire rather than be put on unpaid leave.
To try to resolve their difference of opinion, DPS and the union hired an arbiter, who held a five-day hearing in early 2012.
The union's position was the same as it is now: Under a longstanding state law, nonprobationary teachers have contractual rights that prevent them from being dismissed without cause and a hearing. And the Colorado constitution prohibits the state from impeding those contracts. However, the union argues that Senate Bill 191 does just that.
On the big question of constitutionality, the arbiter sided with the union, finding that the district couldn't dismiss nonprobationary teachers without due process. The only constitutional way to get rid of a nonprobationary teacher, he wrote, is to prove that he or she should be fired for cause — which is not what DPS is doing with the RIBed teachers.
Because the arbitration was non-binding, however, the district didn't do anything. "The law is the law, unless and until the legislature changes it or a court declares the law unconstitutional," Boasberg explains. "And regardless of whether an arbiter says a law is constitutional or unconstitutional, every citizen has a responsibility to follow the law."
However, the union claims that DPS is the only school district out of 179 across Colorado that's using the mutual-consent provision of Senate Bill 191 in this way. And union leaders are especially irked that DPS wasted no time in implementing it.
The DPS school board didn't publicly discuss the arbiter's opinion until December 2012, six months after it was issued. And even then, it only came up because Andrea Merida, the most outspoken of the board's three-member minority at the time, asked if the board was going to vote on whether to accept the arbitration.
When Boasberg and the board president said no, Merida asked: "So we're just going to let it go until some legal process starts?"
The answer to that turned out to be yes.
On January 29 of this year, the union filed suit in Denver District Court. Bartels says the ultimate goal is to reverse the fates of the teachers who've been placed on unpaid leave and get them their jobs back. The plaintiffs are also seeking back pay, a settlement that Bartels estimates would likely be in the millions of dollars.
That same day, state senator Nancy Todd announced that she and state representative Joe Salazar would sponsor a bill that would fix the issue. The bill, known as House Bill 1268, proposed to resurrect the practice of direct placement by adding a section to Senate Bill 191. That section would have stated that if a nonprobationary teacher is RIBed and is unable to secure a mutual-consent position, the district "shall assign the teacher to an available assignment" or fire her for cause, in which case she would be entitled to a hearing. The bill would have applied only to teachers who held nonprobationary status as of May 20, 2010, the day that Senate Bill 191 was signed into law.
"When I was asked to co-sponsor this bill, I hesitated for a few minutes, because it's never easy to stand strong on your beliefs," Todd, a former Cherry Creek School District teacher, said that day. "When you do it publicly, you make a statement. The statement I am making is that I do believe in due process. I do believe that we honor the professionalism of teachers.... I am very concerned that a hatchet has been used in the place of a pen and pencil to evaluate."
So if RIBed teachers aren't getting all of the open positions within DPS, who is?
District statistics show that DPS hired 498 new teachers in the 2010-2011 school year, 720 new teachers in 2011-2012, 656 new teachers in 2012-2013 and 897 new teachers in 2013-2014. Of those 897, many were young: 44 percent were under the age of 30, according to DPS, and 10 percent came from programs such as Teach for America.
Meanwhile, in roughly the same time period, DPS RIBed 2,923 teachers, 1,240 of which whom were nonprobationary. According to the district, 46 percent of the RIBed nonprobationary teachers were age 50 or older. That's higher than the overall percentage of over-50 teachers in the district (38 percent). In addition, 79 percent of the RIBed nonprobationary teachers were female, and 31 percent were teachers of color, numbers that are just slightly higher than overall district percentages for those groups.
(It's worth noting that the number of RIBed teachers has decreased this year and the number of hires has increased. The district mostly credits that trend to rising enrollment.)
Plaintiff Lynne Rerucha has a theory as to why older teachers are being RIBed. "Not only are older people wise about things within their job, they're also kind of wise about things in the world," she says. "And if you want to pull off something that is only advantageous to certain people — not the kids, not the teachers — then you need to get rid of all those people that are going to go, 'Wait a minute! That won't work! Wait a minute! That's not right!'.... Young, brand-new teachers would never in a million years rock that boat."
Roman, the head of the DCTA, has a different thought: "There is this philosophy where some people think that if you have been teaching for five years, you've been teaching too long." That idea, he adds, comes from the private sector — which is where Boasberg and his predecessor, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, worked before DPS.
Yet another theory is that RIBing older teachers saves the district money. Older teachers tend to have higher salaries, plus they're more likely to become vested in the pension plan. "Big turnover minimizes the long-term pension costs, potentially," Roman says.
But Boasberg denies those charges. "That's flat-out false and completely flies in the face of the facts of how our hiring and payroll systems work," he says. RIBs are a school-level decision, and all but a small number of innovation schools get their teacher budgets using an average teacher salary. "If you have a school that has thirty teachers who each make $80,000, their budget gets charged exactly the same as a school with thirty teachers who make $40,000 a year," Boasberg says. "Schools have absolutely no positive or negative financial impact for hiring high-salaried or low-salaried teachers."
Boasberg also points out that the majority of RIBed teachers have, in fact, been able to find mutual-consent jobs. The number who are currently on unpaid leave is just 57 teachers, out of a workforce of nearly 5,000.
But that number doesn't include those who, like Kolquist, retired early or resigned, or the number who are still serving their year in a temporary position. Counting those teachers, the number is probably closer to 250. The union fears that the cadre is going to keep growing.
And what about the fact that none of those 57 teachers ever got an unsatisfactory review? In response to that question, Boasberg highlights the flaws in the previous teacher evaluation system that Senate Bill 191 was intended to replace. "Unfortunately in this state," he says, "we had...a binary evaluation system: satisfactory or unsatisfactory," wherein the overwhelming majority of teachers were rated satisfactory. "I don't think that that rating system did a great job of helping us understand who the best teachers are."
There are plenty of people who agree with him. "I'm not saying these teachers are defective in the classroom," says Jen Walmer, who was formerly Boasberg's chief of staff and is now the director of Democrats for Education Reform Colorado. "I don't know them."
But, she says, it's true that no principal thought they were a good fit. Senate Bill 191 even gives RIBed teachers certain advantages, such as letting them have first crack at the positions being advertised at the district-wide job fairs. But the teachers say the job fairs are a joke. Masters describes them as "a zoo with forlorn-looking teachers who'd all been RIBed." She went to about five fairs but didn't find them helpful; one plaintiff likened them to a cattle call. "It felt like you were being paraded around," Masters says. "It was not productive."
Boasberg denies the existence of any sort of blacklist for RIBed teachers. "It's fair to say that there's absolutely no list whatsoever," he says. Van Schoales, the CEO of the Denver-based education-reform organization A Plus Denver, concurs, and doesn't buy into the theory that DPS is getting rid of older teachers to save money, either. "I haven't seen any evidence of that," he says. "If I'm a principal in DPS and I'm under pressure to raise achievement, the last thing I want to do is hire a bad teacher. And so if you're a fantastic teacher with twenty years of experience, I'm going to hire you."
Schoales thinks the union is making a mistake by pursuing the lawsuit. Forced placement isn't good for students, he says, and it devalues the profession of teaching. "They pride themselves on being focused on building a teacher corps that is professional...and [forced placement] is the ultimate anti-professional policy," he says. "It treats folks like widgets. It treats them like interchangeable shop workers."
On March 31, the district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It makes several arguments, chief among them that the legislature can modify state laws however it chooses — and in the case of Senate Bill 191, it chose to modify the law in a way that eliminates forced placement. "Plaintiffs must seek relief at the ballot box and in the Legislature, not with this Court," DPS's lawyers wrote.
The motion also argues that there is no such thing as "tenure" anymore, and that DPS is not violating teachers' due-process rights because putting teachers on unpaid leave is different from dismissing them. For instance, they wrote, a teacher who is put on unpaid leave and then secures a position is reinstated at her previous salary and benefits level, which wouldn't happen if she'd been dismissed.
For his part, Boasberg says the lawsuit raises important questions. "And we welcome the opportunity to address those questions," he says. But he adds that he strongly disagrees with the suit's basic premise. "It's an extraordinary claim," he says, "because it means that once a legislature has created a set of job protections for a group of employees, no future legislature can modify or reduce those job protections."
However, Representative Salazar, a Thornton Democrat and civil-rights attorney who was one of two sponsors of the bill to reinstate direct placement, says he doesn't think lawmakers meant to strip teachers of their due-process rights when they passed Senate Bill 191. Meanwhile, union head Roman argues that direct placement shouldn't be an issue if the teachers who are being placed are good, effective teachers. "If you have a functional evaluation system," he says, "that should be of no concern."
On Monday, Salazar asked the House Education Committee to kill his own bill, a request that the committee members granted. The reason, he explained, is not because the problem is solved. In fact, Salazar called the situation "shocking" and "unconscionable." Rather, he said he'd like more time to work with DPS on a compromise -- something that Boasberg, who was at the committee hearing, said DPS is willing to do as long as it doesn't involve resurrecting forced placement.
Salazar said his efforts to negotiate with the district this year failed in a big way, adding that the DPS administration "does not honor the give-and-take of the democratic process." Now that the district has been publicly called out by both the bill and the lawsuit (not to mention his own comments), Salazar said he's hopeful that DPS leaders will be open to trying to find some legislative middle ground next year.
After all, Salazar noted, "By their own admission, these are good teachers."
Plaintiff Rerucha would appear to be proof of that. In February 2012, she was RIBed from her position as the humanities facilitator at Centennial, the same school where Masters taught. Rerucha had been teaching since 1977, mostly in Wyoming. The Denver native eventually returned to Colorado and was hired by DPS in 2006.
"It was like my dream job," Rerucha says. And she was great at it. In 2009 she received a Mile High Teachers Award, which honors the district's "most accomplished and inspiring educators." In 2010 she was chosen along with two others in the district to travel every month to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to study with a renowned reading specialist and earn a master's certificate in literacy coaching.
But the following year, Centennial got a new principal who was bent on redesigning the school. In February, Rerucha was called into her office and told that her position was being RIBed. "It was, 'We're just going to start fresh,'" Rerucha says. "'We want to give all the classroom teachers exactly what they need, and so we feel like we basically need to get rid of everybody that's not a classroom teacher.'"
Rerucha spent the spring and summer applying for open positions, to no avail. In the fall of 2012, she was placed in an administrative-assistant position at Fairview Elementary. Her duties were similar to those of an assistant principal: She was in charge of discipline and testing, as well as scheduling struggling kids for extra help.
In November, Rerucha says, she asked the Fairview principal if she could get mutual consent and if her position could become permanent. "She brought it to the area superintendent, who said, 'No. This position can't be considered for a mutual consent,'" Rerucha says. The reason? Because the position was only a temporary assignment.
Rerucha kept looking for jobs and had a great interview at an elementary school. The school called her references and even had her write a mock letter to parents introducing herself. "They sent me a lovely e-mail right back immediately: 'This is great! This is just what we were looking for. You'll hear from us soon,'" Rerucha says. "And that, in fact, was the last thing that I heard from them."
In August 2013, after 36 years of teaching, Rerucha was put on unpaid leave. The sixty-year-old is now concentrating on starting her own business: Milk and Cookies Tutoring. "It was hard to think that they were going to decide when the end of my career was, not me," she says. "I still had a lot of years left in me to give to the kids of Denver.
"If this is what they're doing as a matter of course — getting rid of experienced people — that's really sad for the kids. While you need young, new teachers to keep it all going and they're so full of excitement, they don't know beans."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.