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Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court

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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."

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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."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar