After months of contract-talks impasse, Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers union are expected to return to the bargaining table with a state mediator today. District brass have long wanted the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to agree to dramatic reforms to the way teachers are hired and fired, but a recent turn of events means they may have to sweeten the pot to get the concessions.
Last week a state-appointed arbiter sided with the union, which last year filed a grievance against the district for failing to pay teachers all of the money they were owed for participating in a controversial merit-pay scheme, Q-Comp. MPS had said it couldn’t pay the teachers all the money promised because Q-Comp’s creator, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, shorted school districts on reimbursement for participating.
And, of course, the governor’s decision to unallot $1.4 billion in school funding last year and delay hundreds of millions of transfers in state aid have made it hard for schools to do much for teachers lately besides awarding them pink slips.
Complicated as the political calculus might be, the net result for Minneapolis’ teachers has been that they still have not been paid for work performed in the 2008-2009 school year — or, for that matter, Q-Comp work performed last year or this one. All of which might go some distance toward explaining why the teachers have been reluctant to talk about things like tenure reform.
Teachers unions have taken plenty of public lumps lately. If you’ve remained ignorant to the fray, you can find excellent primers on the reform issues at stake on the union’s site and on the site of a parent and citizen group pushing for change.
Meanwhile, MinnPost asked MFT President Lynn Nordgren about the arbiter’s decision and her hopes for today’s renewed mediation. Her edited remarks:
MinnPost: Can you explain the arbiter’s decision?
Lynn Nordgren: We actually got two decisions. One was last spring and one was just now. In the first one, the district actually came to us and said would you allow us to put briefs forward to the arbiter and ask her if in fact she thinks we even have a contract in existence.
Our contract clearly states that this contract remains in place until such time as there is a new one. They wanted to be able to slap that down and say we don’t have a contract and therefore we’re able to make a decision about what’s going to happen here. Well, they lost that decision. The arbiter said we have a contract.
So that meant we could go forward with the arbitration that we just completed, which was about work completed in the 2008-2009 school year. That work was based on a signed agreement between the district and the union. It was for Q-comp and the teachers did all the work with the guarantee that if they did all this extra work, above and beyond, they would get X amount of dollars.
The teachers did all of the work and at the end of that the district said, “We’re sorry, we don’t have all the money. We ran out of money.”
We said, “Didn’t you know that when we signed this agreement?” We had done projections for them and talked about the cost and we had gotten money from the state for it.
Our point was, you just can’t operate that way in life. What if I hired somebody to come paint my house and I got money for it from [the city of Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Project] and then when they got done I said, “Gosh, you did a great job but I ran out of money because I paid the electrician, but could you come back next year and paint my house again?” They wanted the teachers to keep doing the Q-comp work.
The other thing about this arbitration is that because we collectively bargain, salaries are supposed to be at the table. The district instead just arbitrarily said, “We’re freezing everything,” [including teachers’ ability to work their way up in pay and seniority according to the contract’s “step-and-lane” provisions.]
So we took that to arbitration. The arbitrator agreed with us that it definitely should have been paid and if the district didn’t want to do that they should have come to the table and said. “Here’s what we need to do differently.”
It was really about honoring their agreements, respecting the contract. It’s about honoring the people who do the work of educating our society’s children. It’s showing that we value them and we’re not going to be disrespectful or dishonor their efforts.
MP: How much Q-comp money does the district owe your members? What happens next?
LN: We’ve calculated it … at $7 million; they’ve calculated it at $17 million. What the decision says is that the teachers are owed this money.
But there aren’t any checks in the mail, I can tell you that. We can still negotiate. There are other parts of the contract.
What we’re saying is let’s move on. In four months we’ll be back at the table; we can bring forward anything that’s lingering then. We know that they are going to want to talk about an interview-and-select process that we’ve been doing for the last three years.
Monday we spend all day with a mediator over at the Bureau of Mediation Services. Both teams will be at the table and that’s when we start to talk about how this is all going to play out.
The decision gives us leverage. We can just say, “Here it is, pay it.” But I’m trying not to go to that place. I’m trying to make the assumption that we can get it done and move on.