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Dougco teachers join class action lawsuit

The latest squabble to erupt in Douglas County schools is over teacher sick days and whether teachers who have been laid off due to budget cuts are getting a shot at other district teaching jobs.

The Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) and the district’s classified employees filed a lawsuit Feb. 15 in Douglas County District Court claiming that the school district illegally refused to consider teachers for job openings after their positions had been eliminated. A second complaint over the district’s decision in July to scrap a bank of 10,000 teacher sick days was lumped with it, resulting in one lawsuit.

Dougco school board President John Carson called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

“This is a union that has tried to flood the community with misinformation and political spin in an effort to tear down the excellent reputation of our schools and our teachers,” Carson said in a statement. “We’ll deal with this frivolous lawsuit directly. But we will not allow it to distract us from what public schools are actually about-educating kids for the 21st century.”

Carson accused the union of “trying to gain rights under a collective bargaining agreement that expired last summer due to its unwillingness to work collaboratively with the school district.”

DCFT President Brenda Smith disputed the district’s comment about teachers not wanting to work collaboratively during contract talks.

“That is absolutely false,” Smith said. “The union – time and time again – tried to come to a resolution on the contract.”

Smith accused the district of violating Senate Bill 10-191, the state teacher effectiveness law, by not putting teachers who have been laid off due to downsizing in a priority hiring pool. Tenured teachers in that situation go through two hiring cycles before they are let go if they are not offered another district teaching job.

During last year’s hiring cycle, 10 veteran teachers who were laid off never even got interviews or return phone calls, Smith said. The district is in the second hiring cycle now. Six teachers attached their names to the class action lawsuit, she said.

“They basically broke state law,” Smith said. “Under state law, you have to have a priority hiring pool when you downsize….That means teachers displaced inside the system have priority for interviews when jobs come open.”

However, the system also requires “mutual consent,” meaning both the teacher and the school principal must agree on the placement.

“These are teachers who were downsized who didn’t have any sort of evaluative issues,” Smith said, noting that the 10 non-probationary teachers are now substitute teaching regularly. “If they don’t get a job, then they’re out of a position starting July 1.”

But the district contends it is following policy.

“We followed the letter of the law and the process previously agreed to by DCFT,” district spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said. “All displaced teachers were eligible to apply for any district opening and they were all interviewed or screened for the position by the hiring manager. Those displaced teachers that were not hired for an open position were reassigned as substitutes at no cut to their salary or benefits.”

Smith said the sick day issue is especially disturbing. Previously, teachers donated one sick day per year to a sick day bank. Those days could be shared with members facing severe illness. The bank was worth more than $850,000 when the district switched to a short-term disability system arguing it was a more financially prudent approach. The suit calls for the district to reimburse teachers for those sick days.

“We’d had that for as long as we had a contract, for 40-plus years,” Smith said. “(Short-term disability) does not cover the salary of a teacher while they’re off. These do belong to teachers. (The district) did take them away without any sort of conversations.”