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Denver school board ponders stripping some flexibility from innovation schools

The Denver school board last week introduced a draft policy that could limit the autonomy of innovation schools and zones — district-run schools that under state law have some charter-school-like autonomy.

The policy has been given the official title of Standard Teacher Rights and Protections. If passed, the rights and protections provided would be the same as those provided by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the local teachers’ union, to teachers in non-innovations schools.

According to the draft, those protections include but aren’t limited to a workload consistent with 40 hours per week, minimal duties outside of classroom teaching, a uniform school calendar and compensation ranking in the top three for neighboring school districts.

Since innovation schools operate under specifically designed waivers from both the collective bargaining agreement and district rules and regulations, removing the contract waivers could limit the schools’ ability to operate as they have in the past. The waivers have long been a sore point for the DCTA.

In some cases, the waivers allow innovation schools to offer students longer school days if needed and allow teachers to be resources to students outside regular class time. 

“It’s important to note that these items will be for all licensed teachers regardless of whether they’re working as teachers at an innovation or non-innovation school,” Scott Baldermann, the DCTA-endorsed DPS board member who introduced the policy said while introducing the proposed change on Thursday.

Colorado’s Innovation Schools Act of 2008 says public school boards are to grant innovation schools “maximum flexibility” and “a high degree of autonomy” when it comes to implementing things such as curriculum, school day schedules and hiring decisions.

Bailey Holyfield, the executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, a Denver innovation zone of five DPS schools said while this policy may not constitute a direct violation of the Innovation Schools Act, it doesn’t seem to align with the “maximum flexibility” part of it.

“I think it’s a misnomer to frame this as a protection of teachers’ rights and then put a calendar in there that would rob teachers of their ability to have flexible decision-making, at the school level, that meets the needs of their kids,” Holyfield said. 

Baldermann initially pushed for a vote on the changes in February. But other board members—including Tay Anderson, Carrie Olson and Scott Esserman—said they’d like to allow more time for conversations about it with the community and suggested holding off until March.

“I think that this has caught people by surprise,” Olson said. “I have received a lot of phone calls and texts, and I am interested in hearing from all people who are affected by this.”

Olson suggested the board turn to DPS lawyers to get clarity on the legality of the proposal.