The Denver school district and board broke state law when they pre-approved plans to create innovation schools in 2011 and 2012 without first gaining consent of the schools’ current staff members, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The ruling reverses an earlier decision from a Denver District Court judge, who found that most of the district’s innovation plans did not break state law.
The state’s Innovation Schools Act became law in 2008 and was intended to give some schools flexibility over areas like staffing, scheduling and budgeting. It requires at least 60 percent of a school’s teachers to approve the innovation plans, which have typically included provisions like longer working hours or at-will employment contracts.
Denver Public Schools had approved innovation plans for 11 schools before teachers voted on the plans. The Colorado Education Association and Denver Classroom Teachers Association sued the district, saying that those plans violated the Innovation Schools Act.
In today’s ruling, the appeals court remanded the issue to the district court, which will determine what actions DPS must take to be in compliance with the law. The court wrote that teachers in nine Denver innovation schools may need to re-vote to approve innovation plans at their schools.
Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said the ruling validated teachers’ voices.
“With this ruling, the Court reaffirmed the importance of listening to the voices of teachers, parents and administrators in transforming their schools,” Dallman said. “Change works best when it is collaborative. Districts who are seeking to utilize this law need to work closely with those in the classrooms and community to create the best learning environment for all students.”
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the ruling has no immediate impact on current innovation schools or innovation plans. “It’s an important clarification on the technical question of the sequencing of the votes,” he said.
In an email to staff, Boasberg elaborated on that point. “The case is being sent back to the trial court to determine for the nine current innovation schools affected by the case what the appropriate steps should be. Pending appeal to the state Supreme Court, we expect this issue to be resolved within the next two years, with the possibility that the innovation schools involved will at that time have to take another faculty and staff vote on their innovation plans and resubmit them to the Board of Education. Again, in the meantime, there are no changes to any school’s innovation plan.”
Denver Classroom Teachers Association President Henry Roman said the ruling has implications for any new innovation schools. “Upcoming innovation plans will have to follow the process as outlined in the innovation law,” he said. “There needs to be a vote of the faculty before an innovation plan is submitted for approval to the Board of Education.”
Denver District Court Judge Ann B. Frick upheld Denver’s innovation plans in 2013, with the exception of its innovation plans for McAuliffe and Swigert international schools, which she determined violated the state’s Innovation Schools Act. Those two schools, Frick wrote, were not opened to replace struggling schools or as part of clear school improvement efforts in neighborhoods without quality school options.
After that ruling, Swigert and McAuliffe were ordered to establish a task force of staff, parents and community members to review their innovation plans and either re-submit the original plans or submit new, modified proposals.
While the appeals court left how the district should resubmit its innovation plans to the lower court, it suggested something similar to what Swigert and McAuliffe went though as a reasonable option.
Staff at all 11 schools have voted to renew their schools’ innovation plans since the initial ruling.
After Thursday’s appeals court ruling, district officials held off on recommending that the board approve innovation plans for Northfield, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, Shoemaker, and Legacy.
DPS General Counsel Alex J. Martinez said the ruling will likely be appealed to the state’s supreme court.