Published: September 22, 2013
Five days before the deadline for legal challenges to be filed against one of Colorado's key education reform bills, the state Education Board unanimously granted a five-month extension giving teachers and unions more time to file suit.
The decision - discussed behind closed doors in a special meeting on Aug. 26 - has stirred speculation about whether the move was politically motivated to avoid a contentious lawsuit just as voters are asked to approve a $1 billion tax increase for education in November.
It's enough of a concern that at least one political group has pledged to fund the campaign opposed to the tax increase proposed in Amendment 66 if the lawsuit continues to loom over the process.
Threatening a lawsuit are the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Colorado Education Association.
Both unions are concerned a new evaluation system mandated in SB191 carries high stakes for teachers - potential job loss - without an equitable and accurate application.
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the extension was requested to try to avoid litigation and give negotiations and compromise a chance to win the day.
"The idea is to make this work," Roman said. "If you approach this process as a political tool, then that's not a good outcome. We obviously want to figure this out and implement it."
But some are skeptical.
"It feels disingenuous," said Tamra Ward, president and CEO of Colorado Concern, a coalition of business executives. "Before we learned of the possibility of the lawsuit . we were neutral on the tax increase, but once this came to light, the board felt strongly that this assault on [SB] 191 was critical to share with voters and so if voter transparency does not occur around this pending litigation, then we would move to oppose Amendment 66."
Ward stressed that her organization is working with both sides on the issue. She declined to say how much the group may spend opposing the income-tax increase that will be on the ballot in November.
But the board had an incentive to delay a lawsuit challenging SB191 - the 2-year-old bill is just now being implemented in school districts across the state.
A lawsuit would have threatened that long-planned roll-out of a complicated evaluation system.
"It's a balancing act between policy on one hand and politics on the other," said Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst with the Independence Institute.
"Extending the deadline and delaying a lawsuit is a way to get legs under the law and make sure the improved evaluation system gets the chance to take effect in Colorado. On the other hand, the timing is very suspect because the union is interested in passing a billion-dollar tax increase and doesn't want to scare away taxpayers."
SB191 passed in 2010 with bipartisan support.
Among other things the law changed the way teachers and principals are evaluated, awarded tenure and ultimately paid for their work.
Before the law passed teachers enjoyed the job security of tenure - the promise that they wouldn't get fired except for specific incidents or policy violations after having put in three years.
SB191 not only changed how teachers are evaluated, but placed high stakes on those evaluations. A teacher who underperforms for two consecutive years loses tenure and can be removed from a school. Unless that teacher finds a position within 12 months where the principal and other teachers mutually agree it's a good fit, the teacher is fired.
The policy was set to be fully implemented for the first time this school year in most school districts.
However, Denver Public Schools adopted early implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, and conflicts have emerged in the school district over how teachers are being evaluated and the "mutual consent" portion of the law.
"When you think about teacher effectiveness, it's a function of several things," Roman said. "Our goal is to ensure that we actually implement this process in a way that is highly consistent or reliable but also that there is high fidelity to the process."
Former state Rep. Keith King, a Republican and a member of the Colorado Springs City Council who helped draft SB191, said the threat of the lawsuit struck him as disingenuous.
"I guess I don't know the political reasons why they extended the deadline to sue, but if they (the unions) do sue, especially if they get the money first, it'd really be a shame that they should get the money and then they should not have to be held accountable," King said. "It was a fair bill."
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