Longform

Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court

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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."

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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