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Finally, light shed on Minneapolis Schools’ ongoing budget problem

Recently, Ahndi Fridell, who has three kids at Lake Harriet Community School, posed a question in the online Minneapolis Parents Forum. The forum, for those of you who don’t have kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools, is where education-minded locals go to discuss school-related matters.

Fridell’s query was prompted by a Star Tribune story about a dispute between MPS and its teachers union. The article quoted Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson as saying that the district would be forced to dip into its reserve fund to pay $17 million in back pay that a state arbiter ruled was owed to teachers. The move might force the perpetually cash-strapped district to lay off teachers, the story warned.

In October, three weeks before the article appeared, a state arbitrator had ruled in favor of the union, which had complained that MPS had not paid its members wages they were owed dating back to the 2008-2009 school year. Because of the dispute, the district and union were unable to ink a new contract last year.

Q-Comp work done
Several years ago, teachers agreed to participate in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s controversial pay-for-performance program, Q-Comp. They did the work, but MPS failed to pay them all of the merit pay they were owed. District brass’ explanation: The state failed to reimburse MPS enough money to fully fund the program.

Which brings us to Fridell’s questions: “First of all, what administrator is responsible for deciding that the district did not have to abide by the past contract and therefore may not have to pay staff according to that contract? Second, is it clear that Q-Comp was a failure and achieved nothing it was supposed to and has now caused more financial problems for the district? Who was responsible for agreeing to merit pay and then decided to renege on a bad idea? I don’t think students should have to pay the consequences for adults jumping on the bandwagon of some fabulous new teacher reform proposal.

“It is really irksome to me that district officials, who appear to have poorly managed the teachers’ and other staff contracts and pay are now threatening layoffs and cutbacks. And, finally, why can’t teachers and the district settle on a new contract?”

Fridell happens to be the news director at the local radio station KFAI, and as such is better informed about district doings than most folks. And I’ve been writing about the labor impasse since its inception, and have often wondered the same thing.

Reasons for confusion clarified
The reasons for our confusion are illuminating, I think. Until recently, district administrators and union leaders had a gentleman’s agreement not to talk about ongoing contract negotiations. After it became clear last winter that no new contract was forthcoming, however, both sides started putting out their version of the story — without ever laying out a comprehensive, cogent explanation of the dilemma at its heart. Mostly, the sporadic, cryptic communications from each side in essence accused the other of intransigence.

With contract talks set to resume in March, outgoing Minneapolis School Board Chair Tom Madden has shed some light on the fracas. The problem is that the failure to ink a new contract means the one in which both sides agreed to merit pay is still in place. The merit-pay plan guarantees teachers “step and lane” pay increases if they do the Q-Comp work.

Which means that MPS is on the hook for regular, automatic pay hikes for teachers even though the state is not paying for the program. As Madden put it, “It’s essentially an unfunded mandate.”

Which is a huge problem for the incoming board, which will have precious little to offer the union in the way of incentives to give up the wage structure, and precious little chance of persuading the Legislature to do something to plug MPS’ gaping budget hole.

As it turns out, MPS will use its federal EduJobs stimulus money to pay the back wages owed and avert layoffs. But how can the structural deficit be addressed going forward? Good question.

Observations prompted Put Kids First
Before the current dispute resulted in the talks being moved behind closed doors, an enterprising parent activist by the name of Seth Kirk actually sat through a whole, agonizing round. What he saw was enough to prompt him, and several other education activists who share his concerns about the way schools are staffed, to start Put Kids First, a group calling for contract reform. 

Perhaps the district and the mostly reform-minded union should consider re-opening next spring’s talks to outside observers. It might help prevent any impression that either side is acting capriciously or in bad faith, and it might actually spark some creative input on the non-monetary issues on the table.

Perhaps Fridell and I could attend, and report on the progress. Just a thought.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 12/09/2010 - 12:44 pm.

    Thank you!

  2. Submitted by Seth Kirk on 12/09/2010 - 09:57 pm.

    Beth mentions that I observed the last round of MFT negotiations. My notes from that are posted at http://www.remps.org.

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