Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Hickenlooper says lawsuit threat could jeopardize education tax increase proposal

By Megan Schrader Published: October 4, 2013 0

DENVER - Negotiations to prevent a constitutional challenge to the state's new teacher evaluation system have failed, according to the governor, a development that could jeopardize public opinion of a proposed education tax increase.

Two teachers unions threatened a lawsuit against a portion of Senate Bill 191 that implements a new high-stakes teacher evaluation system that is based in part on student performance and test scores.

Hickenlooper said in a statement Wednesday that he was "deeply disappointed" that negotiations couldn't work and that the Colorado Education Association feels "duty-bound" to file suit against SB191.

"No amount of further discussion or negotiation or mediation will change that," Hickenlooper said. "We want to make it clear to the people of Colorado that we are determined to protect the foundational reforms embodied in SB191."

Mike Wetzel, spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association, said the unions still hope to reach a compromise on the issue and stay out of courts.

"We felt like things were going well with Denver Public Schools, that if we had more time we might be able to settle our differences," Wetzel said. "We stick by that, and we want to continue these talks."

The Gazette reported last week that the State Education Board had voted to give the unions more time to file a lawsuit. The deadline had been Sept. 1, when the statute of limitations was set to expire, but the board extended it for five months.

Board members have said the decision to extend the deadline was to give the new teacher evaluation system a chance to be implemented before it became bogged down in court. The unions said they sought the extension in an effort to negotiate a resolution to their concerns without litigation.

But many were skeptical of that assessment.

The new deadline was past the November elections when voters will be asked to pass Amendment 66 - an almost $1 billion-a-year income tax increase to better fund education, including some of the reforms outlined in SB191.

The law, passed in 2010 and called the Educator Effectiveness Act, requires all school district this year to implement standardized evaluation systems for teachers and principals. Teachers will be paid and promoted based on evaluations, half of which is based on student progress, instead of the old tenure system.

Denver Public Schools was among the first to implement a new teacher evaluation system, and Wetzel said it is the first round of teachers who were let go from their jobs who would file suit.

But Wetzel said those teachers weren't let go because of poor performance - which was the intent of the law - but rather were fired because of financial issues.

"They are using a provision of an educator effectiveness law, which we think totally runs counter to the intent of the teacher effectiveness," Wetzel said. "If you pass Amendment 66, that would relieve the financial pressure on the district that would make them want to fire an effective, well-performing teacher to begin with."

The governor, too, called for support of Amendment 66.

"We understand that some may use this lawsuit as a reason to oppose Amendment 66," Hickenlooper said. "We respectfully disagree. The best way to protect Colorado's education reforms is to support Amendment 66 this November."

The governor called on the state Education Board to rescind the extended deadline and force the unions to file a lawsuit now - and face potential public backlash before the vote - or miss their window to do so.

"We know that these reforms have even stronger public support now than they did when they were passed, and we are prepared to do whatever is necessary to defend them," Hickenlooper said.

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Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644

Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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