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Ending seniority in assignments isn’t the way to solve Minneapolis school problems

Beth Hawkins recently wrote a detailed and incisive news article for MinnPost regarding the current state of affairs between the Minneapolis Public Schools and the teachers union, raising the possibility of a damaging strike.

While there are a var

Beth Hawkins recently wrote a detailed and incisive news article for MinnPost regarding the current state of affairs between the Minneapolis Public Schools and the teachers union, raising the possibility of a damaging strike.

While there are a variety of issues, as Hawkins points out, a major sticking point is teacher seniority. Very simply, it boils down to the teachers wanting to pick their schools based on their seniority, while MPS wants to place them as needed.

There are really two issues here: The first is a micro one: how to evaluate seniority. The second is a macro one: How are we going to improve education in our state generally?

I bring a couple of elements of expertise to the first issue as a businessman who has run several of my own ad agencies over 45 years. That gave me some knowledge of how to retain and motivate a work force. Secondly, my daughter happens to be a “senior” teacher in MPS.

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Benefits of seniority are well proven
The benefits of seniority are prevalent throughout business, the professions, the military and government. Why not? Seniority implies loyalty, commitment, experience and rank, and rightfully should be rewarded, not “punished,” as MPS seems to want.

MPS claims it needs its senior teachers for the most challenging schools — in code language, the schools that are the most difficult in which to teach in almost every way. While this appears to make sense on the surface, it is really a disincentive to teachers achieving seniority and staying in the field and/or in the MPS system.

In business, I learned that if you create a pleasant, congenial environment, pay takes second place for retention. So now, MPS wants to hold the line on pay, put teachers in a more challenging (possibly worse) environment not of their choosing…AND take away seniority as well!

What’s left for motivation and retention? Not much. Hawkins pointed out the best retention is for newer teachers or those with more than 10 years of experience. This MPS plan is a good way to start seeing senior teachers, with 10-plus years of service, leave as well. The private sector and other districts offer attractive alternatives.

My daughter has taught in the system for about 20 years and has been at the same school for most of that time. She loves the school and its administration. It is a multiracial school, not “affluent,” with good performance figures — in fact, some of the best in the city.

Because of her seniority, she has been able to stay there, and the school has built an effective, strong, collegial team to make education work. It has created an environment of familiarity and stability — with teachers, administration and parents. Indeed, she sold her home in Golden Valley a few years ago, because she wanted to live in the neighborhood where she teaches and have her children be part of the neighborhood too. That is a teaching commitment in every sense of the word, professional and financial.

The MPS plan would change that. For new teachers entering the system, eliminating seniority would at least establish ground rules going forward, but changing the game retroactively for senior teachers seems unfair and unwise.

So, that is my micro viewpoint of the problem, but what of the macro one?

That is a lot tougher, and here MPS has a case — but not a solution. It would be foolish not to acknowledge that there are challenging schools that need extra attention. Obviously, I am not an educator, but this much I do know: While the Pawlenty administration and its conservative friends continue to claim there is plenty of money to go around in the state and/or that private vouchers are the answer, the fact is public education needs money to improve the system!

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Meanwhile, the Pawlenty administration continues to underfund a variety of state needs — education among them.

This is not throwing money at some vague government program; this is the compensation of a valued group of dedicated people in our society who are responsible in large part for the future of our children, and our nation.

No alternative to more money for schools
There is no way around this — additional funding for education is essential. Money!

Money to recruit new teachers. Money to provide current teachers with advanced training. Money for more teachers and smaller class sizes. Money to retain our best teachers with decent compensation. And extra money to provide incentives for teachers to teach in the schools that present the greatest challenge.

Those who elect to teach in those schools face a range of difficulties and demands other teachers may not face: issues of language, diversity, attendance, discipline and long, extra hours. As Hawkins stated: “Other cities have proven that disadvantaged students thrive on longer school days.”

These teachers deserve — and should receive — extra pay for added time and services rendered. Pay them fairly and they will come, experienced and new teachers. Again, it comes down to money, pure and simple.

The lack of state funding has placed most school districts in a severe bind, as Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Robert Panning-Miller has noted. Property taxes are stressed to a high level.

Even worse, some in state government have little respect for public education, and are not unhappy to see it in distress; note the comments of the Taxpayers League and the Center of the American Experiment on this topic. And they have virtually no regard for the special challenges MPS faces in perhaps the most diverse system in the state. The oft-quoted remark of Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, about class sizes of 200 being “acceptable” is indicative of this negative attitude. If these anti-tax groups think they can solve this vital issue with “smoke and mirrors,” they are seriously mistaken. There is a lot at stake here for many parties, the children first among them.

Obviously, the MPS plans are more far-reaching than the seniority issue; some are good, but the funding crisis trumps them all. Thus, on this score, the district is faced with a variety of bad options, apparently none of which portends funding progress in the near future. At least, not until we can get a state administration that recognizes the value of a highly educated populace to the district, the state and, indeed, the nation. That commitment, and the needed funding, is not there now. But, in the meantime, the idea of extracting seniority from the teachers is not a good solution.

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Nor is it fair. Ultimately, it will almost certainly exacerbate the problem through the attrition of our most loyal and desired teachers and likely create a deterioration of morale. And those are things MPS cannot afford or risk.

Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his entire business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Don Effenberger at deffenberger [at] minnpost [dot] com.