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Ex-state senator says curtailing innovation school waivers would be illegal

One unanswered question that has been hanging over the debate about Denver’s innovation schools is whether the school’s board’s pending move to limit the autonomy of Denver Public Schools’ 52 innovation schools violates the 2008 Innovation Schools Act.

Now, Dan Grossman, a former Democratic Colorado state senator and representative who is also a lawyer, has written to the DPS board asserting that if passed, the changes would, in fact, be illegal. The board is slated to vote on the changes March 24.

Here is the full text of a letter Grossman sent to the board last week:

Dear Directors:

By way of introduction, I am the parent of two current DPS students, including one student at Northfield High School in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, an attorney, a DPS alumnus and a former state senator. I am writing to express my opposition to the Executive Limitation Policy Proposal for Standard Teacher Rights and Protections (“Policy Proposal) that purports to unravel waivers secured by innovation schools as part of their plans that were approved by staff, administrators and the Board of Education. The proposal is not only a bad idea from a policy perspective, but it contravenes the plain language of the Innovation Schools Act and would, therefore, be unenforceable.

During my ten years in the Colorado General Assembly, I worked on countless education issues including securing additional funding for Colorado’s public schools and creating flexibility for local school districts to meet the needs of their students. I worked closely with then-Sen. Peter Groff (D-Denver) on issues pertaining to charter schools and other methods to improve access to quality education for all of the state’s students, but in particular those students that have traditionally been underserved by and underrepresented in the educational system.

Senator Groff continued to work on these issues after I left the legislature in 2006. In 2008, he sponsored and secured adoption of the Innovation Schools Act. As you are well aware, this law created the mechanism for the creation of innovation schools, innovation school zones and innovation school districts. The purpose of the law is to foster innovation and improvement in

the way that schools meet the needs of their students and improve student achievement as evidenced by graduation rates and other performance measures.

The Policy Proposal seeks to reverse any waivers to the DCTA collective bargaining agreement that were secured by existing innovation schools and innovation school zones pursuant to the process set forth in the Innovation Schools Act. The proposal specifically calls out provisions of the CBA that pertain to personnel issues applying to teachers and directs the Superintendent to set a uniform school calendar for all schools.

On its face, the Policy Proposal contravenes the Innovation Schools Act.

That statute provides the method for forming innovation schools, zones and districts and the method for revising innovation plans. C.R.S. 22-32.5-109(1)(B) requires innovation schools to obtain the approval of at least 60% of the members of the school’s collective bargaining unit in order to secure any waivers to that agreement. Any changes to the waivers must be agreed upon by the Board and the innovation school and approved by at least 60% of members. C.R.S. 22-32.5-109(D).

Finally, and most importantly, the statute provides that any CBA waivers obtained through this process remain in effect as long as the school remains an innovation school.

… [W]aiver of identified provisions of a collective bargaining agreement for an innovation school or the public schools within an innovation school zone pursuant to this subsection (1) shall continue so long as the innovation school remains an innovation school or a public school remains a part of the innovation school zone. A waiver approved pursuant to this subsection (1) shall continue to apply to any substantially similar provision that is included in a new or renewed collective bargaining agreement for the schools of the district of innovation.

C.R.S. 22-32.5-109(E).

The Board simply has no authority to reverse properly obtained waivers without going through the process set forth in statute. As a result, the Policy Proposal, if adopted, would be unenforceable.

The creation of Denver’s Innovation School Zones and Innovation Schools represent the hard work and effort of hundreds of administrators, teachers and parents all in service of improving the schools for Denver’s kids. You have heard from over 1,000 members of the Denver community opposing the Policy Proposal. And, given the plain language of the Innovation Schools Act, moving forward with the Policy Proposal would be legally problematic.

Given the foregoing, I implore you to rescind the Policy Proposal and work with Denver’s Innovation community to ensure the continued success of these schools.

Dan Grossman