Denver school board votes to limit school autonomy

In a split vote, the Denver School Board on Thursday night approved a controversial proposal that will limit the autonomy of some schools in a bid to bolster job protections for teachers.

The controversial 5-2 vote came after five hours of public testimony and eight weeks of fierce debate that divided the Denver public school community. It was the board’s first major policy move after candidates opposed to previous reforms and backed by the teachers’ union swept all open seats, and it comes as the district and union negotiate their next contract.

Denver’s 52 semi-autonomous innovation schools will be most affected by the new policy. Many innovation school principals, teachers, and parents vehemently opposed it, arguing that a loss of autonomy would hamper their schools’ programming and harm students. Innovation Schools are operated by the district but may waive certain district policies, as well as teacher tenure protections in state law and parts of the union contract.

The new policy will reduce some innovation waivers by requiring all Denver schools, except those under state sanction for low test scores, to:

  • Follow the teachers’ union contract, which guarantees a tax-free lunch, a maximum class size of 35 students, an arbitrator to settle grievances, and more.
  • Comply with state law that grants teachers the permanent Colorado version, known as non-probationary status. Teachers with non-probationary status have job protections if terminated and the right to due process if terminated.

During a livelier-than-usual discussion, board members focused more on the process that led to the policy than on the policy itself, known as executive limitation because it directs the superintendent. Several board members criticized the process as rushed and flawed, with one calling it “ambush governance.” In the end, only council members Michelle Quattlebaum and vice president Tay Anderson voted against the policy.

“There should be no surprises,” Quattlebaum said. “And there were surprises.”

Board Chairman Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán co-wrote the proposal with member Scott Baldermann, who presented it at a January board meeting. Neither the teachers’ union, which backed the proposal, nor the innovation leaders who opposed it, said they knew it was coming.

Baldermann and Gaytán’s initial proposal was more sweeping than the one approved on Thursday, with provisions requiring a standardized school calendar, a 40-hour work week, a ban on busy work, teacher salaries ranked in the region’s top three , and more.

The reaction from the Innovation Schools community was strong – and it continued even after the board agreed to simplify the proposal and remove some of the provisions that had proven most unpopular, such as the school calendar. standardized.

Screenshot of Denver School Board members and Superintendent Alex Marrero during a zoom meeting.

The Denver School Board heard hours of moving testimony before voting on the policy change.

Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat

Students, parents, teachers and principals from at least 11 of the 52 innovation schools have spent hours demanding the board not pass the proposal, which some have called secretive, irresponsible and oppressive. They said their schools served students well and treated teachers fairly, even without contractual protections, and wondered what problem the board was trying to solve.

“Why try to fix what isn’t broken, and why in such a rush?” said Mandy Martinez, a teacher at Escuela Valdez, a bilingual innovation elementary school.

A smaller number of teachers implored the board to adopt the policy. Christina Medina, a union member and teacher at McGlone Academy, an innovation school that serves kindergarten through eighth grade, said the Denver Classroom Teachers Association supports innovation.

“What we don’t support is the stripping of workers [of] rights,” she said.

Before voting no, Anderson offered to delay the vote until June. Council members Quattlebaum, Carrie Olson and Scott Esserman spoke in favor of the postponement in hopes the council could use the extra time to work with both parties to find a compromise.

But Gaytán argued that 60 days was enough for the community to intervene. She referred to a survey in which a majority of teachers who responded supported the changes. Superintendent Alex Marrero noted that the board received “an immense amount of feedback.” Board member Brad Laurvick said the postponement would prolong the controversy.

Anderson’s motion to postpone failed after he changed his mind and voted against, saying he was tired of being gaslighted. Esserman and Olson, who initially came out in favor of the postponement, eventually voted for the policy along with Gaytán, Baldermann and Laurvick.

“I don’t think we should sacrifice teachers’ rights as a means of innovation,” Laurvick said.

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

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