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MPS contract negotiations leaving reformers frustrated

About half an hour into the most recent round of contract negotiations between Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers, Bill English picked up his hat and coat and walked out, disgusted.

Co-Chair of the Council of Black Churches and one of the founders of a grass-roots campaign for contract reform, English had been sitting in on the periodic talks since they started in October.

For five years, he and other community leaders have been calling on the district and union to draft a new contract that would allow for strategies that have succeeded in closing the achievement gap in a number of other Twin Cities schools. Two years ago, they formally organized as the coalition Put Kids First Minneapolis.

Their wish list: More time in school; an end to layoffs that don’t take teacher effectiveness into account; an end to the practice of forcing “excessed” teachers on schools that don’t want them; the ability to hire from a wider pool of teacher candidates, and an easier path for firing underperformers.

English scanned to the bottom of the proposal on last night’s agenda, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers’ response to the district’s most recent salvo — pathetically watered down in his opinion — and realized the counterproposal contained none of the measures he and the other members of Put Kids First Minneapolis had fought for.

Sees district as caving

The district, he charged when reached later at home, was caving.

“I think we have to urge the district to hold out,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know why we’re prepared to settle. Are they prepared to say those kids don’t need the extended time they originally asked for? Are they so anxious to settle they’ll settle for virtually no time at all?”

As for the union, “They just don’t get it,” he said. “They just don’t get the need to give kids an extended day. They’re committing those kids to not achieving proficiency.”

And proficiency, he and others are increasingly clear, is achievable even with the most fragile student populations. MPS and a number of the city’s odds-beating charter schools currently have a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to collaborate on replicating the strategies that are working in schools like Harvest Prep Academy. Virtually all of those tactics require big changes to the teachers’ contract.

“The union just doesn’t seem to care,” English continued. “And my response to that is damn them. Damn the union.”

Lynn Nordgren
Lynn Nordgren

The hour that followed English’s departure probably would have unnerved him completely. Federation President Lynn Nordgren walked the group through a series of handouts outlining the duties that already overburden teachers and demanding dramatic reductions in class sizes.

A bright green sheet entitled “Preparing for the year: First week for teachers,” outlined 80 hours of tasks such as cleaning classroom surfaces of dust and grime, hanging up number lines, creating name tags and seating plans and sharpening pencils. A tan two-pager listed responsibilities ranging from staff meetings and special-ed paperwork to maintaining bulletin boards.

Other handouts outlined collaborative problem-solving models, committed the district to creating a respectful culture and asked for reductions to the workloads of special-education teachers. The union also asked for changes to the use of assessments and the approach of working in teams known as professional learning communities, both strategies used by odds-beating schools.

Administrators mostly listened

MPS administrators, in this case acting at the behest of a school board dominated by members elected with significant MFT support, mostly listened as union leaders outlined their proposal. Lower class sizes have long been on their wish list, too, but are wholly unattainable unless the Legislature restores tens of millions of dollars slashed from the budget.

Fifteen months ago, five new Minneapolis School Board members were chosen in an election that critics, including outgoing board members, charge was determined by union participation in Minneapolis’ DFL endorsing convention.

Soon after the election the members-elect angered those critics and many other community members by signing a letter on MFT letterhead criticizing their predecessors and pledging to work collaboratively going forward.

One, Hussein Samatar, refused to sign the letter. Several others later apologized, saying they did not intend to send a signal that they had taken sides.

One week ago, the district put forth a proposal asking for a 5 percent increase in the amount of time kids spend in the district’s 16 lowest performing schools, plus an additional two to three weeks of paid staff training and prep time each year for those schools’ teachers.

Administrators also asked for an end to layoffs and forced placements of “excessed” teachers at the so-called high-priority schools. In addition, they agreed to a union “clean slate” proposal to reduce teacher workloads by eliminating as many burdensome, duplicative and unnecessary programs and initiatives as possible.

‘Meager and narrowly focused’

English’s Put Kids First co-founder, longtime MPS parent and volunteer Lynnell Mickelson, last week characterized the district’s last settlement offer as “meager and narrowly focused.”

“A 5 percent increase? At Harvest Prepartory, the ‘beat-the-odds’ public charter school in north Minneapolis, students are currently receiving 35 percent more instruction time than MPS studentsbecause Harvest Prep has a both a longer school day and school year,” Mickelson wrote in an entry on the group’s blog.

Harvest Prep students are overwhelmingly African American; 90 percent are on free and reduced lunch and they are outperforming white students on state reading and math tests. MPS says it wants to replicate Harvest Prep’s success with underperforming students. But by only proposing a 5 percent increase, the school board can’t be serious.

This is the first year that Minnesota school districts have not faced significant penalties for failing to ink contracts with their unions by Jan. 15. Led by GOP lawmakers who believed the fines disadvantage administrators in negotiations, the Legislature last year eliminated the deadline.

This year, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing for state laws mandating the reforms on Put Kids First’s agenda. DFL versions would blend traditional union protections with reforms; their GOP counterparts are significantly more hostile to labor.

According to the state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, some 40 percent of school districts now take factors other than seniority into account when making layoff and staffing decisions.

A long struggle

Minneapolis has struggled with the issue for years, ever since the mass teacher layoffs that began a decade ago forced the contract’s staffing requirements to the forefront. The upshot: While principals have gained some flexibility to hire candidates they consider good fits in recent years, they are still forced to hire from the same pool of tenured teachers.

Reformers and MPS administrators complain that this makes it impossible for them to hire new teachers trained in gap-closing strategies or to prevent the layoff of top experienced performers.

According to a study [PDF] conducted by the teacher quality initiative The New Teacher Project in 2009, MPS schools experienced an average turnover rate of 21 percent during the three previous years, with 7 percent of teachers were laid off each of the two previous years.

Each year between 2007 and 2009, 17 percent were transferred to another school, 15 percent went on leave and 16 percent were excessed. Almost one-fourth of excessed teachers were excessed again the following year.

The practice of “excessing” teachers has been singled out both by The New Teacher Project and Put Kids First as particularly problematic. Whereas layoffs are done on a district-wide basis according to seniority within each subject area, excessing takes place at the building level.

Contractually, excessing is also done by seniority and only when a position — or its funding — is eliminated. In practice, however, it is sometimes the easiest mechanism for a principal to get rid of a problem teacher.

Excessed teachers go into a pool from which vacancies are filled. Just like teachers who transfer out of a school voluntarily, they can bid for open jobs.

Excessed teachers who are not chosen by building teams and principals are assigned to a school by human resources via a process known as “forced placement.” Neither teacher nor school has any control over this last process.

Highest satisfaction with new hires

According to the 2009 study, principals report the highest level of satisfaction with new hires and the lowest with excessed teachers. Some 95 percent report being forced to accept an excessed teacher and virtually all reported losing a teacher they wanted to keep to layoff or excess.

Union leaders have countered criticisms of the practice by touting their Peer Assessment Review (PAR) process, in which underperforming teachers can get help becoming more effective or getting out. Nordgren has repeatedly put the number of teachers who have gone through PAR at 500.

From 2005 to 2009, The New Teacher Project found that only 1 percent, or 182 teachers, received assistance from Peer Assessment Review. One-fourth of those referred were denied services and another 19 percent were returned to the classroom. The rest left the district.

About half are rehired, and about half of those are then placed in new schools. More than a third of teachers change schools every four years.

Put Kids First proposed giving tenured teachers who are not selected by any school alternative work assignments for one year. If after one year they are still unable to find work within MPS they should be released with the right to re-apply at any time.

MPS’ most recent proposal laid out a range of options, including the right to go into the substitute pool and buyouts. The union’s counterproposal would pilot a “modified” placement system at six district schools that are currently receiving federal “turnaround” dollars, which typically require staffing changes.

The two sides will reconvene Saturday for an all-day session. Given how far the district has moved from its original proposal, English and his fellow citizen observers said last night, they are not optimistic. One of them, former board member Chris Stewart, has already turned his attention to the four board seats up for election this fall.

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