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Denver Principals Seek Release of Funds Under Colo. 'Innovation' Act

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Three principals have obtained a legal opinion declaring Denver Public Schools is in violation of the state Innovation Schools Act because district leaders have refused to cede control of budget and staffing.

An attorney for the law firm Isaacson and Rosenbaum prepared the opinion for the principals of Manual High School, the Cole Arts and Science Academy, and Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment.

DPS “is in violation of the purpose and spirit of the act,” wrote lawyer Cara Lawrence, “… the schools and their students are being irreparably damaged as a result.”

Manual Principal Rob Stein said the three schools, the first in Colorado granted innovation status under the 2008 law, sought the opinion weeks ago, after repeated attempts to work with district officials failed.

“We thought we should consult legal counsel … to see if what we were asking for was reasonable,” Stein said. “It wasn’t to be adversarial or to threaten the district. It was to get a neutral opinion.”

News of the letter comes days after DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg pledged publicly to release the innovation school funds within the month. Monday, he had little comment on the opinion, dated May 12.

“We fully support the innovation schools, we’re working with them very closely and I’ll just end it at that,” Boasberg said, then added, “I’ll say there are absolutely no legal issues in question.”

The Innovation Schools Act is touted as a “key education reform” in Colorado’s recent Race to the Top application and it has drawn national attention for giving traditional schools charter-like freedoms.

The idea is simple: Give school principals and their staffs the ability to implement innovative plans to boost achievement by waiving state, district and union rules and regulations.

So a principal can hire who she chooses, teachers can pick a different math or literacy program and school leaders – rather than district administrators – decide how the money is spent.

To win innovation status, at least 60 percent of a school’s staff must agree to a plan and it must pass muster with the local school board and the State Board of Education. There is a price – an innovation school has three years to show academic results or its local board can yank the status.

Denver’s Manual and Montclair schools won innovation status in March 2009 and Cole became an innovation school in August. But Stein said the three principals have struggled since then to get DPS to comply with the terms of their innovation plans.

Among the examples cited in the legal opinion:

– The principals are supposed to have control over their budgets so they can decide whether to purchase services such as cleaning, maintenance and transportation from the district or another vendor. But DPS didn’t provide a price list of its services to the schools until last month, after principals were to set their budgets for 2010-11 let alone 2009-10, and it has yet to release those funds.

– The principals are supposed to have control over staffing and the flexibility to hire their own specialists. But when Manual contracted with Mental Health America for counseling, the district told that agency to “cease providing services.” The district also continued to control the hiring and assignment of specialists such as social workers and psychologists at Cole, known as CASA, and Montclair.

– All staff members at the schools are to be on annual contracts and all new hires are exempt from state law governing teacher dismissal but “the district is not abiding by these terms,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the district has impeded each school’s ability to hire new staff by delaying the hiring process for months at a time.”

Stein has been the most vocal of the three principals and he voiced his concerns last week to the State Board of Education.

The principals met with Boasberg last month to talk about the lack of progress and were assured of his support for innovative schools. After all, the DPS superintendent helped write the law, which was largely based on a Denver school, Bruce Randolph, that had sought autonomy within the district.

“Meanwhile, there have been real costs to our community,” Stein said. “We were counting on funding as promised, we’ve had oral assurances from Tom (Boasberg) … but I can’t hire staff until I get dollars in my budget to hire them. I’ve had to put people on notice.

“I’ve lost a staff member who gave up waiting and went and found another job. I have another staff member who is looking for another job and is likely to leave.”

The staff member who left was Manual’s on-site professional development coordinator and he took a job with DPS.

“He’s gone off to work for the district with the funds we’re not entitled to,” Stein said. “So if we want, we could call this guy and ask for some part of his services. But we don’t want that, we want to provide our own professional development around our own community’s needs and our own faculty’s needs.”

For DPS, a key issue has been untangling the funding that should go to each innovation school, Boasberg said last week after a community meeting where he was publicly asked about the concerns.

For example, how much per student is spent on what are typically districtwide services such as custodians, textbooks and teacher training? How do you parse out the cost per school of the dollars spent on DPS’ instructional superintendents or its science curriculum?

A spreadsheet sent to the three schools lists more than 40 categories of services, complete with costs for many items. But each item also contains an “owner” or district department head responsible for overseeing those funds and a rationale for, in many cases, not releasing the funds to the innovation schools.

Under security, for example, the department head says innovation schools should not be given funding to provide their own because “decentralizing security creates a health & safety risk for the schools.”

Under assessment, the department head also disagrees with dispersing funds, noting Stein has expressed interest in purchasing assessments other than CSAP state exams: “Carving out the ‘share’ for the innovation schools … is going to be awkward at best … We are not funded for these purposes.”

And under math/science curriculum, the department heads say no to divvying up the funds but note that, “All schools have access to the curriculum tools.”

“If we have innovation status, they can’t just spend those funds for us and say, you’re welcome to use these books if you want,” Stein said.

Altogether, he estimates Manual should have control over another $570,578, with the biggest chunk of that, $300,000, in custodial services. The total for CASA is $674,272 and for Montclair, it’s $377,545.

The three principals aren’t planning legal action though the law firm “would be happy to meet with the schools in order to discuss the schools’ legal options,” the letter states.

Stein said obtaining the opinion was akin to “checking the math.” He declined to identify who paid for the legal services but said it was not the schools or the district.

“Before I go and make a fuss or express frustration, I want to make sure what I’m asking for is reasonable,” he said. “I don’t like the position I’m in. I don’t like to be in an adversarial relationship with my employer over the rights of my students.”

A fourth Denver school – the Denver Green School – was granted innovation status last week by the State Board of Education. Another two schools – Valdez Elementary and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College – have asked the DPS board for approval and, if granted, they also will go before the state board.

And the first school outside of Denver to seek innovation status, Wasson High School in Colorado Springs District 11, won approval from its local board last month and will soon face the state board.

“There are a lot of people who are watching closely … there are many stakeholders in the community who believe the Innovation Schools Act is a breakthrough piece of legislation that could really be a key to reform in Colorado,” Stein said.

“We’ve got to work this out. If I’m wrong, I need to back off. But that is not what outside legal counsel is telling me … the district isn’t even telling me that, they’re just stalling.

“Clearly, if the district is this far off of honoring its agreements to its existing innovation schools, it has every interest in working it out and having that clarity for us and for any new innovation school.”

At least one Denver school board member is attempting to mediate the dispute.

Mary Seawell, a supporter of the state law, has been meeting with the principals and district leaders over the past two months to try to understand “why these schools keep hitting the same walls.”

“I knew we were having more schools coming forward,” she said. “I was concerned we had all these things not working well and we were going to have more schools coming on line.”

Seawell said district leaders believe they haven’t had time to completely figure out the new law but that there’s also a sense the law was intended to free schools from the union rules first – and district regulations second.

“I think when the innovation law passed, people really did see it in terms of freedom from collective bargaining,” she said. “I think they didn’t really think the district piece was as important and I disagree with that.”

She wants a public discussion about the law “so the district is not making agreements with individual schools on their issues but that we have a broader policy for how this is going to work.”

Some board members – Jeanne Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida – have recently begun to question whether the district is approving too many innovation schools in communities not yet ready for such autonomy. Boasberg may fear that talking about problems with the law will fuel their objections.

But Seawell said that’s not a reason to avoid the conversation. She supported the principals seeking a legal opinion, she said, to help clarify their understanding of the law.

“Are people going to use this politically to say innovation schools aren’t the right idea? Perhaps,” she said. “But I actually think people are curious to have this conversation about, ‘What does greater district autonomy mean for improving student performance?’ ”

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