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Minneapolis teachers look forward to details of proposed contract deal

After two years of stalled contract negotiations, multiple rounds of mediation and two decisions by a state-appointed arbiter, Minneapolis teachers this week will learn the details of a proposed settlement between their union and district administra

After two years of stalled contract negotiations, multiple rounds of mediation and two decisions by a state-appointed arbiter, Minneapolis teachers this week will learn the details of a proposed settlement between their union and district administrators. If approved, the 2009-2011 contract would apply to the current school year and last year.

The details are all but beside the point. Whatever the content of the agreement, it seems the most important element is a long-awaited dose of good will — no small thing, given that the next round of talks is scheduled to begin in coming weeks.

“Dedicated educators continued to work diligently to meet the needs of students while we worked to reach a contract agreement,” said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). “We appreciate their perseverance and patience and are happy to be moving forward.”

“It’s nice to get this one completed,” said outgoing school board Chair Tom Madden. “We’ve been working hard. To do nothing after a year and a half would not help anyone emotionally going into the next round.”

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Even without having heard the details of the proposed deal, Madden said he was pleased that the incoming board, which will be sworn in Jan. 11, can go into talks over a 2011-2013 contract with this chapter closed.

“It’s going to be tough all around,” he said. “We’re asking for a lot of tough stuff and we’ve got nothing to pay for it with.”

The new contract was announced on the heels of months of escalating hostility between the teachers, who until last month were owed $17 million in back pay, and the administration, which is seeking a number of painful changes to teachers’ working conditions.

If they are to win greater staffing flexibility they say is necessary for crucial reforms, district leaders must win a number of tough concessions from the teachers. In the wake of eight consecutive years of budget shortfalls, however, MPS has little to offer in the way of financial incentives.

The administration wants changes to teachers’ tenure protections, the ability to skirt the union seniority list during layoffs and mechanisms for staffing struggling schools that need to keep students for longer days. In addition, MPS also wants a side agreement with the union over so-called interview-and-select — a contract provision allowing principals to hire whomever they want to fill vacancies — put into the main body of the contract.

A year ago, the state fined Minneapolis Public Schools $800,000 for failing to ink a new contract with the teachers, who asked an arbiter to decide they were owed millions in back pay for participating in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s controversial merit-pay scheme, Q-Comp. The district had argued that the teachers were paid all of the Q-Comp money the district was given by state. In recent weeks, an arbiter sided with the MFT, ruling that in the absence of a new contract the past one remained in effect, obliging the district to come up with the back pay.

If the new contract is approved by members of the MFT and the incoming school board, it will apply retroactively and remain in effect until a new contract is signed, which is supposed to take place at the end of the current school year.

The proposed deal comes in the wake of a controversy that ignited when four incoming school board members signed a statement on MFT letterhead criticizing the current board members of creating ill will with the union.

Unlike past contract talks, the now-concluded negotiations were closed to the general public by mutual request. Concerned about the misinformation and hostility generated by the process, some community members are urging both sides to agree to open the upcoming bargaining sessions.