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Letters, on teachers’ union letterhead, from incoming school board members draw fire in Minneapolis

Letters, written on Minneapolis Federation of Teachers letterhead, from four incoming Minneapolis School Board members criticizing the current board are adding to the charged atmosphere surrounding an impasse in contract talks between the district a

Over the weekend, outgoing Minneapolis School Board Chair Tom Madden was opening one of his last batches of district mail when he spied an envelope bearing the teachers’ union logo. The signature “Lynn” was penned above the return address, so he assumed it was a personal communication from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers’ President Lynn Nordgren.

The envelope contained four identical letters [PDF] on MFT letterhead addressed to Madden and the other members of the board and signed by four of the five new school board members who were elected last month but have yet to take the oath of office.

“We join with the teachers and education professionals of the MFT in urging members of the current school board to resolve the issues that would hinder our future efforts to work collaboratively to improve education in Minneapolis,” the letter stated. “Members of the current school board have created ill will by refusing to stand by the provisions of its agreements with teachers and other school employees.”

The district and union have been at an impasse in contract talks since before the start of the 2009-2010 school year. An arbiter recently handed down a key decision awarding teachers $17 million in back pay. Teachers are to see that money in their paychecks today, according to district administrators.

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As a result, a new round of talks is set to begin in a few weeks. Without a number of major changes to the current contract, the district can’t move forward with plans for closing the achievement gap. Tensions are at an unprecedented high.

Adding to the charged atmosphere, the recently concluded campaign season was dogged by controversy about the union’s pivotal role in the city of Minneapolis endorsing convention. A number of education observers complained that the MFT’s negotiating strategy going forward was to run out the clock with a board it didn’t like and resume talks when a more sympathetic one had been sworn in.

On Dec. 2, all five new board members had attended a meeting with Nordgren and other MFT officials, at which they were presented with the prepared statement. Jenny Arneson, Rebecca Gagnon, Alberto Monserrate and Richard Mammen signed. Hussein Samatar declined.

Strong personalities

The most recent referee of a board stocked with strong personalities, Madden is a patient man. But Tuesday night, at the last regular business meeting the outgoing incumbents are to participate in, he found himself a mite exercised. Near the end of the meeting, after Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson presented outgoing members with plaques, each director offered his reminiscences.

He knew, Madden began, that he was supposed to share his highs and lows, but he was having a pretty hard time seeing past what he saw as a new low. Did the incoming members have any idea they had just helped the union send a signal? And why did the newcomers, who have not taken the oath of office and thus not been privy to any details of the district’s negotiating stances, feel qualified to criticize after hearing one side of the story, he asked.

“It just makes me a nervous that you don’t grasp the gravity of the job,” he said. “I have high hopes for a few of you and I’m certain you’ll come through. But this was a big stumble in my eyes.”

And in the eyes of a number of people in the community. “You’ve got to give them credit for transparency,” said Lynnell Mickelson, a district parent and co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolisa “pro-labor” grassroots organization calling for contract reform. “I can’t remember the last time anyone made it so brazenly transparent, right down to the letterhead, where they’re at.”

“I was disappointed to see signed letters on letterhead,” said former board member Catherine Shreves, herself a veteran of a brutal round of contract negotiations. “It’s really not an auspicious beginning to align oneself with any one constituency.”

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Ideally, a school board’s function is to serve as the link between various community stakeholders: taxpayers, parents, business leaders with workforce concerns, district staff and their bargaining units and, not least, students, she explained.

“The thing that’s the most disappointing to me is that four members of the board were so willing to come in and sign a letter like this that is so disrespectful of current leadership,” she added. “Bernadeia Johnson is doing a great job.”

Was the letter a shot across the administration’s bow? “Absolutely not,” said Nordgren. “It was not an attempt to say anyone was aligned with anyone.”

Nor was it intended for public consumption, she said: “The letters were sent only to school board members. We did not intend to send them to anyone else.”

Several of the incoming board members were in Chicago this week touring charter schools, but those who could be reached for comment were chagrined. Mammen said he thought he was going to a meeting set up for new board members to meet MFT stewards. “My intent was to call on them for leadership,” he said. 

Mammen said he understood why people are upset. “I admit in rereading the letter that accusing the board of ill will was inflammatory and I regret that,” he said. “The intent entirely was to encourage all parties to get back to the table to start dealing with the issues.”

‘Bad judgment’

Incoming board member Monserrate said he stands by the content of the letter, but agrees it wasn’t a good idea to sign something on MFT letterhead. “It was bad judgment on my end and I’m sorry I upset people,” he said.

Monserrate stood by his criticisms of the outgoing regime, however. The current board has made a number of tough decisions, he said, but hasn’t done a good job communicating with stakeholders, resulting, among other things, in terrible staff morale.

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“I signed it because I agreed with what it said,” he explained. “I wanted to send a strong message to the current board that they’ve had plenty of time to settle a contract with MFT and that I agree that when you sign a contract you honor it.”

Whether it makes any sense to send a call to action to a board that has one, last partly ceremonial meeting left in its tenure is something Madden and others questioned.

Samatar declined to sign the letter, and earlier this week met with Nordgren to explain.

“I believe it was not appropriate for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to draft and ask us, as incoming Minneapolis Public Schools board members, to sign the letter — let alone signing it on MFT’s letterhead,” he said in a letter posted to the online MPS Parents Forum. “As an incoming board member, I have not yet been briefed on the stalled contract negotiations. I don’t have yet complete information from the district.”

Samatar also said he wanted no part of what he called a “blame game.” “I wanted in no way to be part of a letter that is critical of the contribution of our current board members,” he said. “We are elected by the people of city of Minneapolis to do our best in setting the best possible policies for the district. In signing this letter under the MFT logo I felt I was asked to abandon my constituency. And I don’t think any of us want to do that.”

Lastly, Samatar said he made it clear to the union during the campaign that he thought reforms were needed.

When the district and union return to the negotiations, the issues on the table will be tough indeed. For years, MPS and education policymakers have been clear that administrators need the right to staff each school according to its needs, rather than according to the dictates of the union’s seniority list. MFT members agreed to “interview-and-select” several years ago, but not in all schools or on an ongoing basis.

“There’s so much research on teacher quality,” said Shreves. “It’s hard for me to accept the fact that schools can’t control who they hire.”

In her experience, when schools can’t shed bad teachers, families vote with their feet. Indeed MPS enrollment has plummeted over the last decade as families in impoverished neighborhoods have moved their kids to charter schools and suburban districts.

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“I’m not sure all the stakeholders understand the monopoly is over,” said Shreves.

Key issues

In addition to freedom to hire, MPS wants changes to teacher tenure, something the union has refused to budge on in the past. Also on the agenda: Longer days in struggling schools, mechanisms for evaluating teacher effectiveness and merit pay. At the same time, the cash-strapped district has little to offer the teachers in terms of money.

“These are not process issues, these are hard, substantive issues,” said Mickelson. “You can’t ‘process’ your way out of it.”

Mickelson and Put Kids First co-founder Seth Kirk know as much about the contract as anyone who isn’t on the negotiating team. Before the union and district asked a mediator to close the talks to the public, Kirk sat through two rounds.

Since then, Mickelson has made a point of obtaining recordings of the closed executive sessions where board members talk strategy with district negotiators. The new contract, she said, contains no reforms: “It’s all about money.”

“I think the public, if it were aware of how lopsided this contract is, would be shocked,” she said. “The public doesn’t have a union. Parents and kids don’t have a union. They count on the board to represent them.”

Nor, in Mickelson’s view, should a lack of money prevent the union from agreeing to terms that will allow MPS to make changes that are helping struggling schools in other communities make progress toward closing the achievement gap. “What’s going on is simply unjust,” she said.

Madden concurred. “I think I said to you last spring, this is a tough situation and we’re asking for tough things,” he said.

Madden hopes the negotiations that will start a few weeks after the new board is seated are public: “I think if they were public, this would be a whole different ballgame.”