If you go into a Minneapolis school building Wednesday after dropping off or picking up your kid, check out what teachers are wearing. No, educators have not suddenly become fashion plates. Instead, keep an eye out for red clothing — the color the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) wants members wearing to show solidarity during increasingly fractious labor negotiations.
You might not know it, but your friendly classroom teacher is working without a signed contract; the old one expired this summer. Even though the district and union have been negotiating since April, about the only major point union president Rob Panning-Miller and school board president Pam Costain agree on is that the two sides remain “far apart.”
Both sides face a state-mandated Jan. 15 deadline — and potential $1 million fine — just 43 days away (if you include Christmas and New Year’s). For a district already saddled with a $13 million deficit, paying money for nothing would be a particularly painful blow. “If a million dollars…disappears, that’s a million dollars not to pay salaries — a train wreck,” Panning-Miller says.
The penalty looms because the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) administration wants to make some big changes. After years of being hectored about falling enrollment and a yawning achievement gap, the school board is overseeing a new strategic plan that they say means changes in how MPS does business.
Two examples: to emulate successful urban schools, MPS wants to give principals and school site councils more power to hire new teachers outside the seniority system and lengthen the school day for schools serving lots of kids in poverty. Those work rules are contentious enough — teachers say empowering principals doesn’t equal higher achievement, and the administration can’t be trusted to implement longer school days. But it’s even tougher getting labor buy-in when (teachers say) the district keeps raises below inflation and freezes health care subsidies.
Will the board take a strike?
Labor negotiators often snatch agreement from the jaws of discord in the final hours. That’s basically what happened in 2005, when the two sides dodged the state penalty by throwing their impasse to binding arbitration. Panning-Miller says that’s less likely this time.
“They were much, much closer two years ago than today,” he states, a sentiment MPS officials don’t contradict. For now, the negotiations are in closed mediation, after being open to the public all summer and fall.
One big question is the school board’s resolve. Would they go to the mattresses for their changes and take a fine — or even a strike — if the teachers say no?
Costain is alternately diplomatic and pointed. “We’d love to make these changes with teachers — their buy-in is essential. But I do feel there’s a denial of the serious situation the district faces financially and achievement-wise. … I think it’s safe to say the board and administration are very united in what we want.”
And thus the teachers are responding with their own crimson-hued display of unity. It began last Wednesday, and according to the MFT web site, will continue weekly though Jan. 15. The district — belatedly — is ramping up its own public communication effort, launching something called the MPS Communicator, which you can sign up for by emailing email@example.com. Another good place to watch the storm clouds gather is the MPS Parents Forum, where parents and teachers interact.
Correction: This post incorrectly overreported MPS’ dropout rate. For 2006-07, the district has reported a 67.2 percent four-year graduation rate to the State of Minnesota under No Child Left Behind counting rules. According to the district Research Education Assessment department, that means there is a 32.8 percent four-year dropout rate. (100 percent minus 67.2 percent.) Students who transfer out of Minneapolis are not considered Minneapolis dropouts if they continue their high school education in other districts or alternative and charter high schools. However, if they take longer than four years to graduate, they are considered dropouts in the 32.8 percent figure. Also in the post, union president Rob Panning-Miller originally misstated the duration of the district’s potential fine. It is a one-time penalty.