Reduced Rights for Colo. Teachers Under Fire

     (CN) – An appeals court revived a challenge to a new Colorado law that lets school districts place tenured teachers on unpaid leave without cause or a hearing.
     Under pre-existing legislation, the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act, 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.
     The Colorado General Assembly changed TECDA in 2010, with the adoption of Senate Bill 10-191, which placed a new emphasis on evaluating teachers by their effectiveness. The amendment included many ways for school district to let go of nonprobationary, tenured teachers such as the closure of a school or a drop in enrollment.
     Previously, districts had to force other schools to accept displaced teachers with tenure.
     Claiming that the new law allowed Denver Public Schools to fire hundreds of experienced educators, seven teachers led by Cynthia Masters and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association filed suit.
     Though the Denver County Court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed on Nov. 5.
     TECDA may not include contractual rights, but such rights were imbued in the law’s 1967 predecessor the Teacher Employment, Dismissal, and Tenure Act, or TEDTA, the court found.
     Reversal is necessary since TECDA preserved the substance of the older law.
     “Although TEDTA and TECDA are not identical, both protect nonprobationary, or tenured, teachers from dismissal without cause,” Judge Robert Hawthorne wrote for a three-person panel.
     As such, “plaintiffs have, in this case, overcome the presumption that statutes do not create contracts,” the 24-page ruling states.
     In addition to the teachers’ contract claim, the court also revived their due-process challenge to the 2010 amendment.
     TECDA’s “for-cause dismissal provisions create a constitutionally protected property interest in continued employment,” Hawthorne wrote.
     While being placed on unpaid leave is not tantamount to a dismissal, the law does entitle such teachers to a hearing “in which the teacher may attempt to show that they purported reason for which he or she was placed on unpaid leave was not the actual reason or that the placement was effected in an arbitrary or unreasonable fashion,” the court found.
     The ruling notes that teachers on unpaid leave cannot be considered fired since they “retain an employment relationship with the school district [and] are eligible for temporary and substitute positions.
     Such teachers also get their salaries and benefits reinstated to the level at which they would have been had they not been placed on unpaid leave, once they secure full-time employment within the district.

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