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Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court

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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."

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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.

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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