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Denver school board simplifies proposal to limit school autonomy

A student wearing an orange sweatshirt draws sketches on a piece of paper.

Denver’s semi-autonomous innovation schools would be most affected if the board passes measures to centralize more control.

Nathan W. Armes / Chalkbeat

A simplified version of a controversial Denver school board proposal would require semi-autonomous schools to follow the teachers union contract and grant Colorado’s version of teacher tenure. But the board late Monday removed a widely opposed provision to standardize the school calendar as well as a requirement that Denver offer teacher salaries that rank in the top three in the region.

The new version of the proposal requires the superintendent to create supportive working environments for Denver Public Schools employees but doesn’t specify how. The original version listed a 40-hour work week, a ban on busywork, minimal non-teaching duties, and other demands that at least one board member criticized as vague. The board dropped those details.

The board is set to vote on the simplified version Thursday. The proposal, which is known as an executive limitation because it directs the superintendent, has been the subject of heated debate among teachers, principals, and parents since it was introduced in January.

The proposal seeks to limit some schools’ autonomy in order to shore up job protections for teachers. Denver’s semi-autonomous innovation schools would be most affected if it passes. Innovation schools are district-run schools that can waive certain policies, laws, and parts of the teachers union contract. The proposal would prohibit some of those waivers.

“What we’re doing here is protecting teachers’ rights,” said board member Scott Baldermann, who co-wrote the original proposal with board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán.

For instance, most innovation schools currently waive Colorado’s version of tenure, known as non-probationary status. Teachers with non-probationary status have job protections if they are laid off and the right to due process if they are fired. Innovation school principals say waiving non-probationary status makes it easier to fire a teacher who is a poor fit for their school.

But waiving non-probationary status would be prohibited under the proposal.

Board members workshopped the proposal at a meeting Monday. Superintendent Alex Marrero presented the board with a version that was pared down based on feedback from educators and others, and board members spent hours refining it even further.

“All of us sitting up here care about teachers, especially now in the pandemic,” said board member Carrie Olson. “But it’s nuanced in what that support looks like and the unintended consequences of passing something when we don’t understand the implications for individual schools.”

The simplified version of the proposal:

  • Strikes standardizing the school calendar. Opposition to this idea was widespread because schools tailor their calendars to the needs of their communities. One board member cited an example of a school with a large Muslim student population taking Islamic holidays off.
  • Strikes all references to compensation. The board decided to delay the conversation about compensation in part so it could include all employees. Board Vice President Tay Anderson said he’d like to raise pay for hourly workers to $20 an hour.
  • Strikes examples of how the superintendent should create a supportive working environment for teachers, leaving those details to be negotiated with the teachers union.
  • Requires all innovation schools to abide by the teachers union contract and the state law that grants teachers non-probationary status after three years of effective ratings.
  • Still allows innovation schools the flexibility to hire non-licensed teachers to teach non-core subjects. Board members cited examples such as a school with a garden hiring a farmer who is not a licensed teacher to teach students about growing food.
  • Allows more flexibility, including from the teachers union contract, for innovation schools with low test scores that face state sanctions if they don’t show academic improvement.

Board members didn’t commit to passing the simplified proposal, with several saying they wanted to gather feedback over the next two days before making a decision. 

Results from a survey on the original version of the proposal showed 82% of Denver teachers at traditional schools who responded and 67% of teachers at innovation schools strongly or somewhat supported the original proposal. Among principals who responded, those at traditional schools were mixed, with 39% in support and 46% opposed. The stiffest opposition came from innovation school principals, 86% of whom opposed the proposal.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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