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DPS board orders NE Denver Innovation Zone to revise plans that include policy waivers abolished in 2022

Editor’s note: This article is republished from Boardhawk partner Central Park EdNews. It was written by Brian Weber.

The Denver school board Thursday (3/9/23) sent back for revisions the renewal of the innovation plan for the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

Denver Public Schools officials said that the renewal plan was confusing. They said the schools did not specify well enough which waivers from the original 2018 innovation plan that they want to keep in the updated plan.

In addition, administrators said the schools are improperly seeking waivers from various policies and the teachers contract, including those the board disallowed in 2022.

“It’s almost, the audacity,’’ said Auon’tai Anderson, board vice president.

NDIZ teachers and staff members were also confused, DPS administration officials said, and therefore were not clear on what exactly was in the plan they voted on. Board members said they received a petition from 70 teachers at Northfield High School claiming they needed more clarity on waivers. At least 60 percent of union members at a school must vote in favor of any waivers.

The DPS board was scheduled to vote on innovation renewals for 16 district schools on March 23. However, if the NDIZ schools’ staffs approve a revised plan, the board will reconsider it at its regular meeting in April or May. The schools have until April 5 to submit a revised plan.

School and NDIZ representatives have yet to respond to questions about how they will proceed with the district’s order. Zone schools serving Central Park: Swigert International ES, McAuliffe International MS and Northfield High School. The three use the International Baccalaureate program. Manual McAuliffe MS is also in NDIZ. The zone and individual schools submitted renewal plans but they all include the disputed waivers, administration officials said.

“There are multiple issues across all the plans,’’ said Grant Guyer, associate chief of strategic operations.

Innovation schools operate much like charters. They are district schools but are run by a nonprofit board. They are supposed to have autonomy, enabling them to waive many requirements of state law, district policies and collective bargaining agreements for: academic programming, staffing; control of their schedules, calendars and budgets; freedom to shop around for better or lower-cost services usually provided by the district.

Formally connected through the zone, the schools can focus on academic alignment from kindergarten through high school. They can pool resources in areas such as professional development and purchasing, and benefit from economies of scale otherwise unavailable to them.

In April 2022, however, the DPS board stripped many of those freedoms from the teachers contract that the schools consider necessary to operate in a way that’s best for their students. The measure is called Executive Limitation 12 (EL-12).

Opponents of the changes charged that the board allowed the teachers’ union to dictate policy. The board defended limits on innovation schools’ power, saying they were protecting teacher rights that they claim can be violated by waivers from the labor contract.

Under the board’s 2022 EL-12, innovation leaders are no longer be able to:

  • Define their own “school year” or develop a school-specific calendar with longer days or years,
  • Determine class size and load,
  • Create unique school governance models including merging multiple committees into one,
  • Refuse direct placement of unwanted teachers into their schools,
  • Set school-defined collaborative planning time for teachers,
  • Extend the school day with school-defined extra pay,
  • Reduce staff by determining school-specific needs,
  • Hire staff using annual contracts,
  • Recruit and make offers to applicants outside the district hiring timeline & process,
  • Determine extra compensation for extended time, additional responsibilities and incentives for teachers.

NDIZ also requested waivers from new DPS restrictions around school start times and school calendars.

There are nine innovation schools in the Central Park area: Swigert ES, Willow ES, Inspire ES, Isabella Bird ES, Ashley ES, Denver Discovery MS, Denver Green School-Northfield MS, McAuliffe International MS and Northfield High School.

DPS has a a total of 52 innovation schools.