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Two weeks later, the MFT and MPS Board are still hiding

Chris StewartChris Stewart

It's been 14 days since Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, moved teachers' contract negotiations out of public view.

Since then?

Radio silence and undemocratic secrecy.

We can only imagine why a union president would shut the public out. Sure, the public can be a pain, but then again, the public pays the mortgage.

We also can't imagine why a school board elected on fuzzy campaign promises of "collaboration" and "relationships" is mute about what it is  attempting to accomplish on a $240 million annual contract that makes up 50 percent of the district’s total budget and directly controls who is teaching in the classroom. If you look at the MPS web page from previous negotiation cycles you will see that the board and administration had enough respect for parents and community members to post updates, letters, background information, district data, charts, graphs and very specific negotiation goals.

Today's board: not so much. Like a train that never arrives, the "meeting minutes" have been "coming" for months.

From the beginning, the Contract for Student Achievement has advocated for open and transparent negotiations. It’s a proven idea that government operates better when it respects the people it serves.

Too much is at stake

As parents, concerned citizens, and taxpayers, we feel obligated to be participatory rather than apathetic about our schools. These are our schools, our kids, and it’s our future. We are collectively responsible for the success and failure of all our civic institutions, but few of them are in as much trouble as public education.

There is simply too much at stake for us to accept that the largest investment made into the academic well-being of children should be done out of public view and without any public voice. We don't have to share the same views, but we should share common information so we can be informed citizens in a participatory process.

The truth is, it is somewhat understandable that these negotiating parties would prefer an ignorant public to an informed one. Both sides have something to hide.

Before the MFT took the negotiations into hiding, we commented that the MPS board's proposal was too narrow. It is clearly asking for too little and risking getting even less. By asking for mild changes in just 16 so-called "high-priority schools" it is endangering the rest of the district ecosystem. All schools are high-priority, and when you protect a handful of schools from arcane teacher-placement rules it virtually ensures other schools will be negatively impacted.

Then again, you've already lost with a board that has tied up all its social capital in the naive notion that the serious problems with the teachers’ contract could be solved with cheery platitudes about cooperation rather than nuts-n-bolts substantial change.

Same old MFT posture

On the other side of the table, we see the same old recalcitrant MFT posture. For all the airy self-congratulatory claims to progressivism, this is your grandmother's union. Listen through the smiley faces and you will hear an endless stream of gripes and petulant expressions of alleged victimization. The martyr protocols in these negotiations are tired, but unceasing. There have been numerous plastic attempts to stencil the word "collaboration" on all of its cathartic obstructionism, but we can see from its need to hide from the public (and its members) that the MFT is hardly "collaborating" with anything resembling real reform.

Why should it?

The truth is there is no incentive for MFT's people to agree to anything substantive. They have the contract they want. Their worst performing (but loyal) members are well protected from accountability. They have weakened the district's managerial prerogative in almost every way possible. And, they have a committee for darn near every district function that allows them to slow the speed of decision-making.

We have allowed them all, the MPS board and MFT, to hide from us the details of do-nothing, faux reforms that will slow change and put us on the hook for a contract costing more than $240 million in taxpayer funds. We have allowed them to talk about community engagement out of one side of their mouths, while supporting closed government out the other side.

We all should demand for both parties to open the negotiations again.

Chris Stewart is a former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and he currently leads Action For Equity, a grass-roots campaign for innovation in education and family policy. He is a lead organizer for the Contract for Student Achievement.

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Comments (3)

I've never understood

How is it that any union negotiating for public dollars has the ability to close the door on the people paying the bills?

Worse, the teachers unions and their supporters have taken to calling reasonable questions such as this "bashing", and to calling those that ask these questions even worse.

*This* is why we need to pass the freedom to work bill. True teaching professionals are just as tired of having their profession soiled by the machinations of self-serving, blue collar trade labor unions as the public is of dealing with the troublesome consequences.

Thanks, Chris. Keep up the pressure; the majority of the public, and all caring parents are behind you!

secrecy?

Show me the contract negotiation anywhere that takes place in public? Even the budget bill between the governor and the Republicans took place behind closed doors.

It's called open meeting laws

Actually, Paul, these kind of labor negotiations are legally open under the state's open meeting laws. They can only be closed if one of the party asks for a state mediator to step in. Mediators are typically asked to step in towards the end, if parties are having a problem getting a deal done. The 2007-09 MFT-MPS talks were open to the public. The 2009-2011 talks went straight to state mediation almost from the beginning, so neither the public nor MFT members really knew what was actually being proposed in those talks, which went on for over 18 months.

When the 2011--2013 talks began, a group of MPS parents and citizens insisted that negotiations be open to the public again because we don't believe secrecy serves the public. For years, these contracts were negotiated in private and the result is a 200-plus-page contract in which the employment needs of adults are put over the academic needs of kids. It's pretty outrageous. So I believe the more transparency the better.

After all, this is a not a private agreement between two private parties. This is a $240 million annual contract that is completely paid for with our tax dollars and it directly controls who is teaching out kids in the classroom. These are not nuclear secrets. Why shouldn't these negotiations be held in the open?

I believe the MFT closed off the current talks in part so that their own members wouldn't know what's going on. The closed talks hurt the rank and file as well.

For the record, I'm an active DFLer who supports collective bargaining. But I don't think this kind of bargaining should be done behind closed doors. What's there to hide?