If the tentative contract agreement between Minneapolis Public Schools and the district’s teacher’s union is any indication, the key to a successful mediation is the marathon negotiating session. For eight months, the two sides seemed hopelessly polarized. But in the two days before a tentative deal was struck earlier this week, a state mediator led more than 40 hours of closed-door sessions.
“We were in a very different place just four days ago,” said Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Robert Panning-Miller. “I would describe the overall process as very challenging.”
The union posted a summary of the agreement and the proposed contract on its website this morning in preparation for four days of teacher voting scheduled to start Friday. Details released Wednesday night suggest that both sides can legitimately claim victories. And if MPS’ 3,300 teachers ratify the contract, the biggest winners might be Minneapolis families.
Teacher hiring and transfer issues at heart of impasse
Money and benefits were at issue during the talks, but the heart of the impasse was the district’s desire to change the way teachers are hired and transferred. Under the old contract, teacher openings were filled according to seniority. This meant principals had little ability to select the best fit for their team. And because teachers with the most seniority usually bid for the most prosperous schools, struggling programs suffered high staff turnover.
The pending agreement gives teachers and principals joint power to decide how to staff individual schools. If it works, the process also will ensure that all schools get teachers who want to be there. “No teacher would be forced to interview for a school in that process,” said Emma Hixson, MPS’ lead negotiator. “We’ll be able to staff a program in collaboration with the teachers.”
To that end, each school will create a hiring committee composed of the principal or another administrator and at least two teachers. Now, teachers often end the academic year not knowing where they’ll teach in the fall, but the new deal calls for openings to be posted in the early spring. The hiring committee at each school will interview 10 applicants, the five with the most seniority and five others who are already MPS teachers and who the panel deems good candidates. The selection committees would try to come to consensus on new hires, but if they can’t, principals would decide.
MPS has 58 traditional schools and 14 charter and alternative programs. According to Panning-Miller, 42 will use the new system in the next school year, and the entire district will make the change the following year. Layoffs — a looming possibility with the pending high school redesign — must follow seniority with a few narrow exceptions.
During the first of the contract’s two years, teacher salaries would increase 2 percent. In the second, they would go up 1 percent, but teachers would receive a one-time cash payment of $750. MPS also will pay a slightly larger share of health care premiums for teachers’ dependents.
At a Thursday night meeting, Panning-Miller presented the proposal to about 10 percent of the union’s members. He’s not venturing any guesses how Tuesday’s vote will go, but says teachers were disappointed that the proposed raises don’t keep up with other metro-area districts. “They did not express enthusiasm,” he said.
Joint committee a positive sign
In a district long suffering from dysfunctional management-staff relations and poor communication, perhaps the most optimistic feature of the agreement is the creation of a Quality Schools Collaborative, composed of teachers, labor leaders, principals, administrators and board members. The advisory group’s first task will be to set benchmarks for deciding whether the new hiring system is working before the next round of contract negotiations in two years, Hixson said. Beyond that, and ultimately more important, it will consider all kinds of issues raised by the district’s newly created strategic plan for reform.
“That’s just what we need — something that’s not just in effect when the contract’s under negotiation,” said Seth Kirk, an MPS parent who attended negotiations before mediation started in November. “In all honesty, I’m surprised, because in the previous eight months, they were so far apart. [But] it seems like neither side caved, and that’s a good thing for the district.”