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A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora.

A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora. (Denver Post file)

(Denver Post file)

Court sides with Aurora district in challenge to school innovation plans

The Aurora school district fended off a challenge to its school reforms Thursday, when a district court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the teachers union against custom-crafted innovation plans — but the court left open the possibility that the union can object if it files a more timely protest.

The union had sued claiming “innovation plans” designed to boost achievement in four schools violated the law because the district had changed the language of the plans after teachers voted to approve them.

The court ruling benefited the district in two ways. First, because the union delayed in filing its suit — the schools are now in their third year as innovation schools — Judge Elizabeth Beebe Volz ruled the case was moot. She also said that the language changes that the union contested were not significant.

“This is a victory for disruptive innovation,” said Superintendent Rico Munn.

Union leaders said Thursday they are still considering their legal options.

The ruling is significant because the schools are at the three-year point at which the district must review how well its reform plans are working in its five innovation schools, and possibly renew them. The union challenged plans in four of them.

Munn said the district does believe all of those schools have improved.

“All five of the schools are in a better place than they were when we instituted the innovation zone,” Munn said. “Are some of those things directly tied to the innovation zone? It wouldn’t be fair to say that. We need to dig into the data.”

A state law allows districts to place schools into innovation zones and free them from some laws and union rules, such as those limiting school hours and hiring. The idea is to jump-start change.

Once the innovation plans are in place, districts typically ask teachers to vote on whether to renew them, but Munn said he doesn’t believe the law requires that, something that concerns union leaders.

Aurora Public Schools first started plans for innovation schools in 2015. The district grouped together a number of high-needs schools schools, including some low-performing ones.

To earn innovation status, a school must win the consent of a majority of its teachers.

The Aurora union had argued that the district changed the language of the plans after teachers voted on it. In one case for instance, Crawford Elementary School teachers voted on a plan that said the school would find a program to help evaluate teachers and provide observation feedback. Later, the district added to the language of the plan the Relay program, a controversial principal training program for evaluating teachers..

District lawyers argued that state law only requires teachers to vote on being designated an innovation school, but not necessarily on the plan itself. Aurora maintained that the changes in the plans were not significant.

While the court accepted that position, its order states that if the district again changes the language of a plan after teachers vote on it, the union may then file a legal objection.

Typically, after three years, districts ask teachers to vote to renew their innovation plan and then take it to the state for a renewal vote.

Munn said he believes that at that point, the law requires a review of data, but not necessarily a renewal vote.

The district won’t have complete data on its innovation schools until around August, he said, at which point district staff will review what is working at those schools and what is not.

“Once we understand that, we can decide if there are changes to be made,” Munn said.

The innovation plan would continue to direct the schools during that review, he said.

District administrators believe that some of the innovation-zone changes have been so successful that they’re planning on sharing them with other district schools. One of those ideas is the parent engagement program at Crawford Elementary.

Crawford created a group of 60 parents known as Parents in Action. The school found parent leaders who together spoke four of the many languages represented at the 450-student school, and used them as allies to engage more parents. This year, all of Aurora’s innovation zone schools are using the model, and their success may provide a roadmap for other Aurora schools.