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Inside the debate over teacher rights and innovation schools in Denver

A female middle school teacher writes testing dates on a SMART board.

All teachers in Denver district-run schools would gain union job protections under the proposal, which has divided the community.

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

A sweeping proposal that would shore up teacher job protections, standardize school calendars, and even ban busywork has divided Denver teachers, principals, and parents. 

Changes drafted by two school board members would diminish autonomy for at least one-quarter of Denver schools and boost the board’s control over how schools operate. If passed later this month, the proposal would chip away at controversial policies of the previous reform era.

The most heated debate centers around how the proposal would affect Denver’s semi-autonomous innovation schools. Principals say that limiting their flexibility endangers the unique programming that makes their schools work well, and some parents are deeply alarmed. Many teachers and the union that represents them say all educators deserve the same rights and dismiss the idea that innovation itself is under attack.

Board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who said she wrote the proposal with member Scott Baldermann, has been brief in explaining her thinking. Baldermann declined an interview.

“This is something I ran on,” Gaytán said. “It’s something I believe in.”

The proposed changes, which are known as executive limitations because they would direct the superintendent, come just a few months after an election in which candidates backed by the teachers union swept all open seats, giving them a 7-0 board majority. 

But several board members remain undecided on the proposal, with some expressing frustration with a rushed process and intense rhetoric on both sides.

“People with various points of view on the issue of innovation have effectively gone to their corners and made claims that can’t be substantiated,” board member Scott Esserman said.

Both the teachers union, which supports the changes, and the principals union, which supports teacher rights but disagrees that executive limitations are the best way to guarantee them, said the proposal came as a surprise — happy for some, ominous for others. 

“We want these rights because we deserve them,” said Meagan Arango, an early childhood education teacher at Inspire Elementary, a northeast Denver innovation school. “When I read about the executive limitations, I felt like a wish had been spoken into reality.”

But Kurt Dennis, principal at McAuliffe International School, an innovation middle school, said the proposal feels like micromanagement and would erode a long-held philosophy in Denver that schools should have the autonomy to make decisions that best serve their students.

“A lot of us feel that’s slipping away,” Dennis said.

What the proposal would do

Innovation schools are codified in Colorado law. They are district-run schools that can waive certain district policies, state laws, and parts of the teachers union contract. The extra flexibility allows innovation schools to do things like extend their school year, provide tailored training to their staff, and more easily fire teachers whom principals deem a poor fit.

About a quarter of Denver’s 206 schools have innovation status. To earn it, 60% of a school’s staff must vote to approve the school’s innovation plan, which is renewed periodically. The last time a batch of innovation plans were up for renewal, in January 2020, the percentage of teachers who voted in favor of their school’s plan ranged from 62.5% to 88%.

denver innovation / teacher rights executive limitation

The proposed changes would direct Denver’s superintendent to:
  • Provide all teachers the rights and protections of the union contract, whether or not they work at an innovation school. That includes a 40-hour workweek, access to a mediator to settle grievances, and representation on school decision-making committees.
  • Provide all teachers the rights and protections of state law, including that they can earn Colorado’s version of tenure — known as non-probationary status — after three years of effective performance evaluations. Teachers with non-probationary status have job protections if they are laid off and the right to due process if they are fired.
  • Create “supportive working environments” for teachers by ensuring they have minimal non-teaching duties, spend minimal amounts of their own money on basic classroom supplies, are free from “busywork,” and more.
  • Offer a salary schedule that ranks in the top three among neighboring districts.
  • Eliminate pay bonuses for teachers that are tied to student test scores.
  • Eliminate signing or retention bonuses for teachers.
  • Offer bonuses for teaching at high-poverty schools.
  • Create a standard district calendar requiring all schools to start and end on the same date and have the same holidays and teacher training days.


The proposal to standardize the calendar has proven wildly unpopular, with even the teachers union raising questions about it. But the other provisions have been the subject of fierce debate at district meetings, on social media, and in emails to the board.

At a virtual town hall meeting last week, Gaytán said her proposal would limit innovation school waivers “that do not reflect the values of the school board.” She wants the board to vote on the proposal before 49 of the 52 innovation schools apply next school year to renew their plans.

Gaytán said she also wants to address the issue early in contract negotiations between the district and the teachers union, which have already begun.

“We are showing the community that we respect the teaching profession,” Gaytán said. 

But many people — from parents to principals to fellow board members — have asked: Why this year, in the midst of a pandemic? And why these particular changes?

“Where is the data that shows the teachers are not happy?” one parent asked during the virtual town hall. “I think everyone would be on board with this if we could see some data.”

‘Devil’s bargain’

Teacher retention is one measure of job satisfaction. Five years’ worth of Denver Public Schools data shows little difference between teacher retention at innovation schools and traditional district-run schools. (Charter schools were not included in the data.)

From 2016-17 to 2020-21, average teacher retention at traditional district-run schools was 89%, according to data Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request. Average teacher retention at innovation schools was 87%.

Several teachers have spoken out in favor of the proposal, though some have done so anonymously for fear of losing their jobs. Most innovation schoolteachers work under at-will or annual contracts that don’t allow them to earn job protections. 

Haley Laidlaw plans to leave Kepner Beacon, the innovation middle school where they’ve taught for four years, at the end of this school year. As the union representative for their school, Laidlaw said they feel as if there’s a target on their back for advocating for more lesson planning time, a clear grievance arbitration process, and other rights.

“I’ve been told, ‘You’re either an innovation teacher or you’re a union teacher,’ which is just not true because we are both,” Laidlaw said.

Supporters of innovation schools say teachers chose to work there and approve their school’s waivers. But Arango, the early education teacher, shared a story echoed by others: When she accepted her position at Inspire Elementary, she didn’t know it was an innovation school or what that meant. 

When Arango finally read her school’s 132-page innovation plan, she was confused by the legal language in the waivers. She said her principal reassured her that her job was protected — then left in the middle of the school year.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this person was the thing protecting me from my own contract. And my contract is a legally binding document that says I don’t have any of these rights,’” she said.

Arango said she loves her school and agrees with most of its innovation plan, including the focus on supporting students’ emotional needs, providing additional teacher training throughout the year, and teaching a creative curriculum.

But she said, “Why do I have to make this devil’s bargain and trade away my job protections to teach in this way?” 

Not ‘anti-teacher’

Innovation school principals say all the waivers in their plans work together to make the unique programming at their schools possible. For every policy an innovation school waives, it must put in place a replacement. Leader Kartal Jaquette said some of the replacement policies at his school, Denver Green School Northfield, are more teacher-friendly.

Instead of a traditional school leadership team with a principal, Denver Green School has two “lead partners” and a consensus-based decision-making body that includes nine teachers. Jaquette, who is a lead partner, said the structure provides for more teacher voice and power.

“The idea that innovation is anti-teacher or anti-teacher rights is flawed,” Jaquette said. 

Jaquette and Dennis, of McAuliffe International, said hiring teachers on annual contracts without tenure protections elevates the teaching profession. No teacher wants to work with a colleague who is doing a poor job for students, they said.

“If we make a mistake in our hiring and identify that early on, we can make a change that’s best for kids as soon as possible,” Dennis said. 

A handful of Denver’s innovation schools maintain Colorado’s version of teacher tenure, including Summit Academy, a middle and high school in southwest Denver. Principal Juan Osorio worried that his students might get stuck with a teacher who wasn’t serving them well, but he said he took a leap of faith to show that he trusted his teachers.

“Even when I said, ‘I want to protect students,’ the reality was the message my staff received was that I did not trust them,” he said. “I think that’s what some leaders miss.”

It has worked out well for Summit, Osorio said: Teachers who were not a good fit for the school, which serves students who have struggled elsewhere, have decided on their own to leave. 

But Osorio has concerns with the board’s proposal, including standardizing the calendar and minimizing non-teaching duties. As a small school, Summit pays teachers stipends to coach its sports teams and drive its school van, he said. He worries this proposal would prohibit that. 

Like other principals, Osorio also questioned the timing. 

“We’re going through a pandemic,” Osorio said. “We’re trying to survive this time. … Our energy should be spent in other places right now.”

Where the board stands

The school board is scheduled to vote on the proposed executive limitations March 24. It would be the first time this board, in place since November, has voted on a big policy change.

It’s not clear if the proposal has the votes to pass in its current form. 

Board members Brad Laurvick, Carrie Olson, Michelle Quattlebaum, and Scott Esserman have not publicly taken a position on the changes. All said they are still reviewing data and gathering feedback . Laurvick, who proposed a previous policy change related to innovation schools and teacher rights, said by text that he believes the two can coexist. 

Board Vice President Tay Anderson supports teachers having more job protections, but he opposes standardizing the school calendar. He’s undecided on the teacher pay proposal because he would like pay raises for hourly workers as well. 

Making big changes quickly would be a mistake, he said, a lesson he’s learned from past efforts

“I believe in teacher rights, full stop,” Anderson said. “I don’t believe in rushing through a process that has unintended consequences without doing the real work.”

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

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