Longform

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.