Denver school board members found themselves in familiar territory Thursday as they approved three more innovation proposals for new schools – again over the objections of the teachers’ union, which is threatening legal action.
Board members granted innovation status to Collegiate Prep Academy, to be located at Montbello High School, and to High Tech Early College, which is going into the former Samsonite building, both opening this fall in the city’s Far Northeast.
They also approved innovation status for a Denver Center for 21st Century Learning “multiple pathways” school, opening this fall in Northeast Denver in the former Wyman Elementary, which closed in 2008.
Two of the approvals were passed along the same 4-3 divide that formed on the previous innovation schools proposals earlier in the month. Collegiate Prep was approved just 4-2, because board member Arturo Jimenez was temporarily out of the room – he said that his would have been a dissenting vote, had he cast one.
As before, the three-vote minority was composed of board members Andrea Merida, Jeannie Kaplan and Jimenez, the lone incumbent board member up for re-election this fall.
Their arguments against approving the innovation plans included, but were not limited to, their concern over what they say is the questionable legality of considering the applications at this time.
“We think it’s okay to bust unions and we think it’s okay to take away the due process rights of teachers,” Merida said, prior to casting the first of her three emphatic “no” votes. “We’re just going to go ahead and make these top-down decisions.”
Raising legal questions over staff approval
The Innovation Schools Act, passed in 2008, requires that a majority of a school’s staff vote in favor of any innovation plan and agree to waive the union rules and regulations, accepting an “at-will” employment status.
“We’re going to challenge their interpretation of the law.”
– Henry Roman, DCTABut, as was the case when the board was most recently asked to consider new schools’ innovation plans, the schools up for consideration Thursday do not yet have full staffs in place because they are new.
Accordingly, instead of those schools’ applications being first put to a staff vote, potential teachers at those schools are being told during the hiring process that the schools are seeking innovation status and that agreeing to such a working environment is a condition of employment.
DPS legal counsel John Kechriotis has assured the district that the process is legally permissible, and he said he has been affirmed in that opinion by the office of the Colorado Attorney General.
However, just prior to a May 2 vote approving three previous schools’ applications, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sent an e-mail to board members, with the backing of the Colorado Education Association, threatening legal action if the approvals went through.
In an interview Wednesday, DCTA president Henry Roman said that threat remains very much in play.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know when, the exact timeline or date. But I’ll be talking to the board, and I’m going to inform them that we’re going to move forward with that challenge. We’re going to challenge their interpretation of the law.”
Roman said more than 10 teachers at new DPS innovation schools have complained to him about their innovation status, and that he has also met with the existing staff of one new innovation schools approved Thursday – which he would not name.
“It was very clearly impressed to me that they would not vote for the innovation proposal, if they were given a chance to do so,” he said.
Roman voiced his concerns at Thursday’s board meeting, urging them to let new schools operate for a full academic year, then present innovation proposals to their staffs for a vote.
“In my mind, there is a huge difference between having a secret ballot for innovation and asking the question at a job interview,” he told board members. “To me, they are not one and the same, and I find it really hard to justify that.”
Desire to boost innovation throughout district
But some board members’ opposition at Thursday’s meeting went beyond legalities. Kaplan, as she has before, said she wished the district was doing more to boost a spirit of innovation throughout the district.
“The real frustration for me is, it’s a one-off or six-off kind of thing and we’re not really dealing with 65,000 of our other kids,” she said. “And I think by doing these smaller things we’re really losing the focus on what we should be doing. I think there is a challenge to make this a broader-based reform.”
She found support for that view from board member Mary Seawell – although Seawell was in the voting bloc supporting the innovation proposals.
“We need to go from here, and advocate that all of our schools have those resources and have those capabilities, and ideally they wouldn’t have to go to innovation,” she said “We need to look at supporting public education in a fundamentally better way.”
The previous three DPS innovation school applications also were the subject of contentious debate – centered in no small degree on the same questions of procedural legality. The board tabled final consideration of them at its April 28 meeting, rescheduling its vote for a rare 7 a.m. session just four days later.
No opinions apparently shifted in that brief interim. That morning, by the same 4-3 split, the board approved innovation status for the Noel Community Arts School, the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford and the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello – all in Far Northeast Denver.
The State Board of Education, with very little discussion, subsequently voted 7-0 to grant innovation status to those schools. State board approval is the final stamp required for a school to win innovation status.
Unanimous approval for that trio of schools brought to 10 the number of innovation schools opened or approved for opening in the 2011-12 school year. The additional three approved Thursday now gives the district 13 – pending their subsequent approval by the state board.