DENVER (CN) – The Colorado State Supreme Court overturned an appeal Monday, upholding state law that supports sending teachers on unpaid leave without a hearing.
“It’s baffling that during a time of teacher shortage, when we know teacher pay and working conditions do not stack up to the demands of the profession, that our courts would discard employee due process rights that provide teachers a small measure of protection against arbitrary actions,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Educators Association (CEA).
CEA, which represents 32,000 teachers, along with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) filed a lawsuit against the state board of education and School District No. 1 in the City and County of Denver in 2014. The suit alleged that hundreds of teachers lost their livelihood after the state passed the Educator Effectiveness law, which sanctioned sending non-probationary teachers on unpaid leave.
Under the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act of 1990 (TECDA), a teacher who completed a three-year probationary period could be fired only for specific reasons of just and good cause, and only after a hearing. Therefore, sending teachers on unpaid leave without a hearing seemed to be in violation of due process, according to the teachers’ unions.
Although the Court of Appeals sided with the teachers in 2015, on Monday the State Supreme Court clarified that because TECDA does not form a contract, teachers are without “property interest in benefits and salary.”
When TECDA replaced the Teacher Employment, Dismissal, and Tenure Act of 1967, it also replaced language of “tenure,” with probationary and non-probationary status—referring to whether teachers had been employed less than or more than three years.
Neither status guarantees benefits, the court found.
“The supreme court holds that TECDA did not create a legislative contract or vest nonprobationary teachers who are placed on unpaid leave with a property interest in salary and benefits,” wrote Justice Brian Boatright on behalf of the court. “The supreme court therefore concludes that the General Assembly has not impaired a contractual obligation by enacting the unpaid-leave provisions, and that nonprobationary teachers who are placed on unpaid leave have not suffered a violation of their right to due process.”
State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman applauded the court’s decision and the principles set forth by the Educator Effectiveness law.
“Today’s ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court is a major victory for public school students across the state,” Coffman said in a statement. The education reform law, she added, “allow(s) school districts more flexibility in managing staffing to ensure that teachers fit the educational mission of the school. This common sense approach maintained some employment protections for teachers but rightly prioritized the needs of children.”
The superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Tom Boasberg, said he also hopes this outcome will result in better teacher placement.
Lynne Valencia-Hernandez, a member of DCTA and an English teacher of 20 years, noted that the court’s ruling overlooks other issues in the evaluation system adopted by Denver Public Schools, which leans more heavily on the subjective opinions of administrators rather than qualitative data.
Two years of inadequate evaluations can result in any experienced teacher being stripped of their probationary status—and this ruling means teachers can be removed from their positions without a hearing. Despite holding a masters degree and advanced certification, Valencia-Hernandez said this process, “depends a lot of whether or not your principal likes you.”
Henry Ramos, director of DCTA, said the lawsuit sought to give teachers an objective process with a hearing before they were removed from their positions.
“I cannot tell you how many colleagues I have seen walk away,” added Valencia-Hernandez, who spent her weekend grading 91 student essays. “My students keep me going. This is the career I chose because I wanted to have an impact on my community.”
The Colorado State Board of Education declined to comment on the case.
School District No. 1 in the City and County of Denver was represented by Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie. Todd McNamara of McNamara Roseman & Schechter represented the Colorado Education Association.