Denver Public Schools is getting rid of good teachers, says rep behind here-and-gone bill

This week's feature, "Wrong Answer," tells the stories of five Denver teachers who've sued the school district for essentially getting rid of them even though they've never gotten a bad review. How? By following a procedure laid out in a provision in the state's landmark 2010 teacher-effectiveness law -- a provision that the teachers and the teachers union believe is unconstitutional. Some state lawmakers agree, and two of them introduced a bill in February aimed at changing that provision. But this week, the bill's main sponsor asked that his own bill be killed.

State Representative Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, asked the House Education Committee on Monday to vote to "postpone indefinitely" his bill so that he could have more time to negotiate with DPS. Afterward, Salazar admitted that he wasn't sure if the measure, known as House Bill 1268, was going to pass. His thinking, he said, was that "rather than have a big circus on the bill, let's get together and see if we can work on this."

But before Salazar extended another invitation to the negotiating table, he blasted DPS for its practices. Since the teacher effectiveness bill, widely known as Senate Bill 191, was passed in 2010, 2,923 DPS teachers have lost their positions due to what the district calls "reduction in building," or RIB for short. Of those teachers, 1,240 had at least three years of positive evaluations and were therefore considered "nonprobationary."

Prior to Senate Bill 191, if a nonprobationary teacher was RIBed and couldn't find a new teaching assignment on her own, the district would place her in an unfilled position. The DPS administration, including Superintendent Tom Boasberg, was opposed to the practice of so-called "forced placement" because the schools with the poorest, lowest-performing students usually ended up with most "forced placed" teachers. Boasberg thinks that's grossly unfair and calls the practice "a civil-rights travesty."

Senate Bill 191 changed that process. Now, if a nonprobationary teacher is RIBed, she has one year or two hiring cycles to find a "mutual consent" position, meaning that a school's principal and hiring committee agree to hire her. If she can't, she's put on unpaid leave.

Since Senate Bill 191 passed, DPS has put 86 teachers on unpaid leave. Fifty-seven of those teachers remain there and nearly two hundred more have resigned or retired.

Salazar called the situation an "unintended consequence" of Senate Bill 191 that's "reared its ugly head." He said that what's happened is "shocking" and "unconscionable" and emphasized that none of the teachers on unpaid leave are bad teachers. "By their own admission, these are good teachers," Salazar said of DPS, which he added is the only district in the state using the "mutual consent" provision in this way.

But Salazar said that when he tried to find common ground with the DPS administration on his bill to amend that provision, every one of his proposed solutions was "summarily dismissed." As such, he asked for more time to continue the discussion. The way he sees it, the DPS administration has now been "called on the carpet" and has two choices: it can be bitter and dig its heels in, or it can compromise.

Boasberg was at Monday's hearing, and he said afterward that he'd be willing to work with Salazar and the other lawmakers backing the bill -- as long as what they come up with doesn't include reinstating "forced placement." In a written statement released a few hours later, Boasberg added that he was disappointed that DPS didn't get a chance at the hearing to "set the record straight," noting that Salazar's testimony was full of misinformation and inaccuracies. For instance, he said, Salazar made it seem as though DPS has put 2,923 teachers on unpaid leave when, in fact, that number represents RIBed teachers -- the majority of whom have been able to find "mutual consent" positions.

The group Democrats for Education Reform had some harsher words for Salazar's bill. "This bill was a slap in the face to SB 191," Jennifer Walmer, state director of the organization, said in a statement. (Walmer was formerly Boasberg's chief of staff.) "SB 191 was passed in 2010 to provide our children with the best teachers possible by making sure principals have a say in the placement process. Despite references to bringing back the legislation next year, Representative Salazar should know: forced placement laws that prioritize politics over the needs of kids aren't welcome in Colorado."

Kerrie Dallman, the president of the statewide Colorado Education Association, which has filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Denver teachers and the Denver union, says the CEA even promised to "revisit" the lawsuit if Salazar's bill passed -- an offer that didn't sway DPS. Now, she says, the teachers' best hope lies with the courts.

For more on both sides of the lawsuit -- and to meet five of the teachers who are serving as plaintiffs -- read this week's cover story, "Wrong Answer."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at [email protected]