Colorado’s biggest teachers’ union on the defensive after breaking agreement not to sue the state

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Brad Jones Contributor
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Colorado’s largest teachers’ union is on the defensive after being accused of violating an agreement not to sue to block the state’s nascent tenure reform law.

Education politics are center stage in Colorado, with a nearly $1-billion-a-year tax increase on the November ballot, and a major new teacher-performance laws taking effect. The Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association, opposes the tenure and performance-review law and has moved to challenge its constitutionality.

While plaintiffs generally seek swift justice, the CEA and the State Board of Education found common ground — if shaky — in a joint decision to extend the deadline for filing suit until 2014.

As the state board supports the new law, the decision might seem counter-intuitive, but members wanted to give the reform bill a chance to work for a semester before risking an injunction. Critics allege the delay unduly helps the CEA, which argues Amendment 66 is necessary to implement the reforms in Senate Bill 191. By delaying a potential lawsuit, the union can potentially leverage the law to secure funding, then challenge its constitutionality after votes are counted.

While unpopular, the agreement had advantages for both sides. Now, the state board says CEA isn’t holding up its part of the deal. The accord, technically known as a “tolling agreement,” stipulates “complainants shall not file or assist any individual in filing any action concerning Senate Bill 10-191 until or after January 1. 2014.”

While it’s true a lawsuit directly challenging the law hasn’t been filed, a number of suits involving dismissed teachers make constitutional claims against SB 191 as part of their argument. In representing its members with these claims, the board claims, the union violates the tolling agreement.

According to a report by the nonprofit Ed News Colorado, the teachers’ suits predate the agreement but filings made in September came after CEA agreed to the legal cease-fire.

The board’s resolution says, “concerns have arisen regarding CEA/DCTA’s possible violation of the Tolling Agreement by raising the constitutionality of SB 10-191 in other cases.”

The CEA says no such violation occurred. “The case has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘consent’ provisions of SB-191, or whether they are unconstitutional,” the union said in a statement. The law in question requires a school principal’s agreement with a teacher’s placement in his school, which the union sees as violating the state charter.

While the union opposes other parts of SB 191, raising any constitutional claim in the teachers’ suits has ruffled feathers with the elected state board, which features a Republican majority.

Generally aligned with Democrats, the CEA faces headwinds from some traditional allys on the potential broader lawsuit against SB 191. Governor John Hickenlooper, who faces a re-election contest next year, issued Oct. 2 a statement urging the law stand without a challenge.

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Brad Jones