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What’s at issue in the Minneapolis teacher-contract talks?

As mediation sessions continue in private, here’s what we already know about some of the key items on the negotiating table.

According to the district, it would take about $126 million to fund 10 of the union’s proposals concerning everything from class size to benefits.

The day after the St. Paul Public Schools district and its teachers union reached a last-minute settlement and narrowly averted a teacher strike, Minneapolis teachers reminded everyone that contract negotiation season, for some, is still in full swing.

Before last Tuesday’s school board meeting, hundreds of educators and union supporters rallied outside district headquarters to add some urgency to the contract negotiations. At that point, there had been seven public bargaining sessions and four closed mediation sessions. But Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) officials contended that little progress had been made.

“Since the district has been unwilling to have a real discussion in negotiations or mediation, it is time to take the conversation directly to the district’s elected officials,” Caroline Hooper, the union’s bargaining team lead, said in a press release.

Before the board meeting began, demonstrators carrying signs demanding things like recess, smaller class sizes, nurses, restorative practices and less testing looped through the boardroom. Their presence even extended beyond the audience section of the room. Board Members KerryJo Felder and Ira Jourdain both took a seat at the board table wearing union swag — blue stocking caps with a union logo.

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The display of solidarity wasn’t surprising, given that Felder works for a union, and both were backed by the teachers union when they ran for office. But it did send a conflicted message to district leadership on the contract negotiations team, who are tasked with addressing the union’s demands in a fiscally responsible manner.

The backdrop

With a projected $33 million deficit, for the upcoming school year — combined with the strain of declining enrollment — the district doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to union asks that have a price tag attached. According to the district, it would take about $126 million to fund 10 of the union’s proposals concerning everything from class size to benefits. Any additional costs associated with proposed teacher salary increases would bring that number up.

“We do have our budget situation, which is something that makes this even more difficult,” Superintendent Ed Graff said at the Feb. 13 board meeting, offering a brief update on contract negotiations. “And it’s important that we are prudent in our cost containment of our financial situation.”

While the district has been taking a multipronged approach to addressing the current and projected budget deficits — from gathering community input on budget priorities to restricting employee travel and restricting hiring at the central office — Graff pointed out that some important budget recommendations are tied to the current contract negotiations.

The district is also eyeing two new referendums — one to fund technology costs and another to increase the operating levy — to be placed on the ballot this fall. If the two asks end up on the ballot and get voter approval, they’d bring in in a total of about $30 million. Board treasurer Jenny Arneson called the proposed referendums essential “for the financial health” of the district.

But even as the need to build voter trust and support continues to mount, the current teacher contract negotiations have become less transparent. Michelle Wiese, president of the MFT, has publicly chided the school board and superintendent for choosing to move negotiations into closed mediation sessions, removed from public oversight.

Graff stands by his decision to involve a neutral third party to help expedite an already drawn-out process, citing the need to reach an agreement on “decisions around employee salaries and benefits” to move forward in addressing the projected budget deficit as a major motivating factor.

As mediation sessions continue in private, here’s what we already know about some of the key items on the negotiating table.

Increasing pay, decreasing ratios

The union came out asking for a 5 percent salary increase for teachers, both for the 2017-2018 school year (retroactive to July 1, 2017) and for the 2018-2019 school year. The current contract expired June 30, but state law keeps it in place until a new contract is settled.

By way of comparison, the St. Paul teachers union starting out asking for a 2.5 percent pay increase to the schedule per contract year and ended up settling for a 1 percent pay increase per contract year. To be clear, St. Paul teachers are the highest-paid teachers in the state, with an average salary of about $76,000.

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Minneapolis teachers enter the pay schedule making more upfront, but they end up not making as much as their St. Paul counterparts as they gain seniority. For instance, under the old 2016 salary schedules, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree made $43,172 in Minneapolis, compared to $40,203 in St. Paul. But a teacher with 20 years of experience and a master’s degree made $72,834 in Minneapolis, compared to $82,414 in St. Paul.

While the Minneapolis district has not released any statements addressing the union’s teacher pay proposal, it has rejected a union proposal asking for limits on class sizes. The union is proposing classroom cap sizes of 18 students in pre-K-grade 3, 22 students in grades 4-5, 24 students in grades 6-8, and 25 students in grades 9-12, with exceptions for larger class sizes for subjects like band, choir and the like.  

That ask, the district responded, would come at an added cost of more than $37 million. And, unlike the latest round of teacher contract negotiations in St. Paul, Minneapolis district officials says class size caps are “not subject to collective bargaining” because it’s a policy matter.

Similar to the St. Paul teachers union, the Minneapolis teachers union is also proposing that the district staff each school site with its own team of student support professionals. According to the Minneapolis union’s proposal, that would include a licensed school nurse, school psychologist and social worker in each school building. Their proposal also seeks to remove most student scheduling from school counselors’ caseloads, among other requests.

In terms of finding some cost savings, the school board voted in early January to end school two days sooner this year — a move that Graff said could save the district about $2 million. Looking forward, the district is asking the union for greater flexibility in determining the length of the school year and the number of teacher duty days.
According to the district, the current number of instructional days is “not clearly associated with improved student academic outcomes and is eleven days over the state mandate.” Each day cut would reduce teachers’ pay by .5 percent. Here, again, no agreements have been made.

Recess issue and other proposals

The union’s recess proposal comes after the school board revised its recess policy last spring. The board set the expectation that all elementary students — who were currently getting anywhere from 15 to 35 minutes of daily recess, depending on which school they attended — should get at least 30 minutes of recess.

The union’s recess proposal looks to extend the existing 30-minute daily recess minimum currently promised to all elementary school children to all students in pre-K through eighth grade. It also specifies that “minutes of recess shall be measured when active engagement begins and concludes,” echoing some of the changes that failed to garner board approval when they voted on the policy in June. Only Directors Siad Ali and Felder voted in favor of establishing a requirement that the 30 minutes of recess take place during a single block of time.

Buried among the proposals and responses slung back and forth, the teachers union also apparently attempted to negotiate “physical relief breaks” for teachers into the new contract. The district shot this restroom break request down, stating “clearly, we recognize the need for employees to use the restroom,” and then listing the ways this basic need is already being taken into consideration, via prep periods, lunch breaks, student passing time and the ability of teachers to simply call on other adults in the classroom or building to cover for them.

A proposal introduced by the district in early October, to exempt certain teachers from seniority-based layoffs, has yet to elicit any sort of formal response from union negotiators. The protections would cover teachers working in district autism, Montessori, immersion, and native heritage language literacy programs — an ask rationalized by the need to provide continuity for students in these programs with teachers who are appropriately licensed and biliterate in the appropriate language.

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The second part of this proposal would extend protections from seniority-based layoffs to teachers who are graduates from the district’s “grow your own” program. Both the union and the district have voiced support for the program, as it offers internal staff — primarily staff of color — an alternative pathway to teacher licensure. Without the district’s proposed protections in place, however, they are among the new teachers most at risk of being laid off.

In his most recent public update on contract negotiations, last Tuesday, Graff said he’d recently met with Wiese. He also said he was “confident that we have many points of agreement that we can build upon.” Giving just one example, he mentioned a mutual desire to “reduce the number of evaluations and what that looks like.”

According to the union’s initial proposal, that includes creating a committee to conduct a standardized testing audit, in an effort to reduce the number of standardized tests administered to Minneapolis students and to reduce the amount of test prep activities by 50 percent. The district had shot this proposal down in November, pointing out that student assessments are regulated by state and federal laws.