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MPS contract talks close, tenure reform talks and a union read-in

Today, a trio of labor notes:

On Friday, a state mediator will officially close to the public the ongoing contract negotiations between Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers union local. The district administration and the handful of citizen observers who have been watching the most recent round of talks are disappointed, but state law mandates closed doors whenever one party, in this case the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, requests them.

There is so very much to lament about this — and no, I’m not going to try to talk you into thinking I am objective. I sat through and reported on a recent session, and if I were at the table, I would probably be tempted to draw the curtains, too.

In 2007, mystified that layoffs had resulted in the transfer to his kids’ Montessori school of a number of teachers who were not trained in Montessori methods, a mild-mannered engineer by the name of Seth Kirk exercised his right, as a member of the public, to watch that year’s talks.

He also read the entire 218-page contract. And he came to the conclusion that the system for staffing MPS schools needed a wholesale revamping.

In the five years since, several other outsiders propelled by similar stories have joined Kirk, and joined in his opinion. Union leaders have called the observers, who eventually organized as Put Kids First Minneapolis, misguided and worse.

When Kirk started his masochistic mission, virtually no one hereabouts had had any success in closing the achievement gap. Today, there are upwards of a dozen local schools obtaining amazing things with impoverished kids. On a fair day, you could walk from the negotiation site to the most often cited odds-beating school.

Many of the strategies they employ to do so cannot be employed in MPS because of its contract with its teachers. Cutbacks in state funding are undeniably a big reason. But so is the system for placing teachers in classrooms.

Marathon negotiation sessions are scheduled for this weekend, and my guess is that they will ultimately result in the most milquetoast of compromises. MPS’ 16 most struggling schools will get concessions in terms of the length of the school year and possibly a moratorium on having to accept “excessed” teachers to whom no principal voluntarily extended a job offer.

You know what that means? It means teachers who cannot be fired and cannot bid for a job will be placed, over the objections of their new principals, in the district’s 58 other schools.

Back when Kirk started attending negotiations, the teachers with the lowest seniority or the worst reputations ended up in the poorest schools. Now, they will end up in oversubscribed schools where a more entitled parent population will scream bloody murder.

Make no mistake about how tough this one is. Lifelong friends are going to the mat.

Healthy Debate

Which brings us to item No. 2: AchieveMpls’s next Our City, Our Schools community forum, which will take place Feb. 29 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hope Community Center, 611 E. Franklin Ave. in Minneapolis. Speakers will include Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and Nicholas Banovetz, public affairs manager for MinnCAN, a non-profit organization advocating for quality public education. 

The public is very much welcome to come discuss whether seniority should continue to be the main criteria used in teacher layoffs, or whether effectiveness should factor in.

There are those who don’t see the achievement gap closing without change, and a proposal to end the traditional “last-in, first out” system is currently pending before both legislative chambers.

(No, the debate at the Capitol won’t fix the MPS/MFT problem. If the bill passes, it won’t go into effect until 2015.)

On the flip side, teachers, many of whom do report for work every day to buildings where “shaming and blaming” are the rule, are concerned that they are being asked to give up hard-won union protections before the process by which they will be evaluated has been established.

Others are concerned that the reform could be a Trojan horse. In a cost-cutting era, they ask, who is to say the cheapest teachers won’t somehow be judged most effective?

The nonprofit AchieveMpls works both to engage the Twin Cities business community and other outside support for the city’s schools, and to place disadvantaged high school students in career-catalyst summer jobs. Our City, Our Schools is the group’s 3-month-old effort to generate discussion about critical topics in education.

If you are at all interested in the topic — or personally conflicted about it — I urge you to pack a bag lunch that day and attend. The head of a union local that has experience using factors outside of seniority to make layoff and other staffing decisions, Ricker doubtless knows where the landmines are located on this one.

For his part, Banovetz is likely to show up toting the results of a brand-new MinnCAN opinion survey that shows that public support for LIFO, as the seniority-based system has been shorthanded, is badly eroded. And he will probably come armed with data stressing the link between teacher quality and pupil performance.

(Yes, yes, I do know what the aforementioned poll says. And I’d tell you, but then why would you come back to read the LIFO story I have in the works right now?)

If you know you’d like to attend, AchieveMpls would love, but by no means requires, a heads-up: 612-455-1571 or The group is experimenting with times and venues for its monthly discussion series, so if you’re interested but want to suggest schedule tweaks going forward, they want to hear from you, too. 

Banned Books

And finally, we bring you news of union solidarity:

Today, English teachers at St. Paul’s Central Senior High School are staging a day-long read-in to protest Arizona’s controversial ban on ethnic studies. According to a district press release, “Teachers will give up their lunch breaks and preparation periods to take turns reading passages from the books that have been banned in Tucson, AZ. The books they will read include titles such as House on Mango Street, Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Like Water for Chocolate, The Tempest by William Shakespeare and other works.”

If you’re solidarity minded yourself, the read-in will take place in the central lobby of the school, which is located at 275 N. Lexington Pkwy, just south of Interstate 94.


Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/16/2012 - 11:01 am.

    Why is Thomas Swift so rough on unions?

    “..Seth Kirk exercised his right, as a member of the public, to watch that year’s talks….he came to the conclusion that the system for staffing MPS schools needed a wholesale revamping.”

    “Union leaders have called the observers, who eventually organized as Put Kids First Minneapolis, misguided and worse.”

    “..state law mandates closed doors whenever one party, in this case the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, requests them.”

    “Today, there are upwards of a dozen local schools obtaining amazing things with impoverished kids. Many of the strategies they employ to do so cannot be employed in MPS because of its contract with its teachers.”

    “It means teachers who cannot be fired and cannot bid for a job will be placed, over the objections of their new principals, in the district’s 58 other schools.”

    I have walked in Seth Kirk’s shoes. Before my kids got to public school, I was just another politically apathetic parent who assumed his kids would be getting the same education kids were getting 30 years ago.

    The day I pulled my kids out of the public system, I started an 14 year journey which created the, yes, union despising, anti-Liberal that graces these comment threads today. I’m guessing Kirk and I could communicate without saying a word.

    Union bosses have forgotten something very important. Although they are modeled around the very same concepts that guide the United Auto Workers, their product isn’t cars….it’s our kids.

    They can hide behind closed doors awhile longer, but unless they have an epiphany, the NEA and AFT will soon join the ranks of the long forgotten.

    I may be completely off base, but I do seem to detect some frustration with unions in your reports, Beth. I wonder if that’s true.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/16/2012 - 12:54 pm.

    I taught for 30 years in a public high school in another state. “Tenure” in that state and that school district *never* meant someone “could not be fired.” “Tenure” meant only that, if that person was to be laid off or actually fired, it could not be done without providing evidence of good cause, including evaluations of the teacher in question by school (not district) administrators.

    LIFO was a factor, but not the *only* factor. Those teachers without tenure, if layoffs were coming, were typically the first ones to be laid off. If the enrollment drop or funding gap was bad enough (while I taught, it was virtually always the former rather than the latter that led to layoffs), the tenured staff would be laid off, as well, and LIFO was a factor there, too, but once again, not the only factor. My district had an elaborate point system, which they hoped would ensure fairness, that included, in addition to administrative evaluations, things like extra-curricular responsibilities, involvement in other school-related activities (e.g., active participation in North Central Association evaluations, or leadership in curriculum revision), and so on.

    Seniority counted, in other words, but it was not the whole story. There’s much validity to the rhetorical question of why experience seems to be valued in virtually every other field of endeavor, but is recently regarded as some sort of albatross around the neck when it comes to teachers. But it’s also possible for anyone to become complacent over time, especially if they’ve demonstrated some talent in the past. Plenty of athletes, writers, movie actors and engineers are skating along on past reputation rather than recent work, and I can’t think of reasons why teachers would necessarily be an exception. Young teachers frequently bring fresh approaches and plenty of energy to faculties and schools, so it’s often in the best interests of the children to have a mix of ages and experience levels in the faculty lounge.

    Youth, however, is not a guarantee of competence.

    The hard part – which administrators in my district generally chose not to address – is differentiating between talent that’s being exercised for the benefit of the kids, and talent that’s lying dormant, or is nonexistent. The multi-year probationary period that’s customary in most school districts is supposed to involve a “weeding-out’ process early on, and annual teacher evaluations ought to be a vehicle for instructional improvement. Logically and practically, however, the insistence on measurable “improvement” year after year over the course of a career takes on some aspects of kabuki theater.

    I don’t know that I’m an advocate of solidarity per se, but the Arizona ban is indefensible on any but knee-jerk reactionary grounds. Good for those English teachers.

    And I look forward to the LIFO story. Minnesota really *does* appear to have a very different take on tenure than what I regarded as customary, so I remain an interested reader in that regard.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/16/2012 - 03:01 pm.

    Fahrenheit 451 in Arizona? Not so much.

    OK, first off, the title “Banned Books” goes beyond misleading. Arizona’s law in no way prohibits anyone, young or old, from reading any of the books listed or any others (Shakespeare, Beth? Really?)

    That dispensed with, I’m all for including minority people of note in US History classes. I’m not going to produce some smarmy honor roll, but there are many people of disparate races and nations of origin that contributed greatly to the wonder that the United States is today.

    However, singling out particular races for study in narrow context inherently breeds racism. There is no denying that for many generations, minority players were not recognized for their contributions because of their race, but more racism is not the answer.

    People should be encouraged to investigate the historical backgrounds of their origins, but that is a effort best made on personal time, not public school time.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/16/2012 - 03:08 pm.

    Shakespeare? Yes, really.

    I was just doing a little digging. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and I’m wrong.

    It seems that Arizona has decreed the removal of books, including Shakespeare, from school libraries (that’s not banning per se, but it’s close enough for golf).

    Everything I said about ethnic studies withstanding, this is wrong and I unhesitantly denounce it and the people that made it happen.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/16/2012 - 08:09 pm.

    other side of the story ?

    Again we are only getting a piece of the big picture. Pin the tale on the teacher and we then can avoid looking at the entire picture. Get serus and deeper with the reporting please or hopire Schoch to write the education column. Unless we become willing to discuss a bottom up remedy. The teacher is a very small element in the picture. This is a 99 issue. The bottom line reason the poor man ended up with someone doing Montessori program is that he lost his job somewhere else and so on and so on education is expensive. If you don’t want to pay for it don’t beat around the bush speak your truth. I am tired of the diversionary crap. Get real.

  6. Submitted by Patricia Rydeen on 02/16/2012 - 08:56 pm.

    Clarification on tenure and seniority in MPS

    Tenure is granted to teachers after they complete a process to show that they are competent at teaching. In Minneapolis Public Schools this takes 3 years, and is in no way automatic. Three non-tenured teachers from my school were not offered contracts for this school year because they did not meet the requirements for tenure. Not granting tenure is a great way to keep poor teachers out of the classroom. Tenure does not mean a job for life. As a union steward I saw many tenured teachers lose their jobs for performance based issues. Having tenure simply meant that there is due process required to fire them, and after due process was followed, they were found wanting and were let go. Frankly no one wants to teach next door to a clown. A layoff means that a district has more teachers than it requires. Teachers are laid off in reverse order of seniority – the last hired is the first laid off – which is not the same as fired. This is an important difference. For instance, if a program is closed at a school and it has a teacher with 25 years in the district and no performance issues, a less senior teacher in another site will be laid off so the faithful employee of 25 years still has a job. Both teachers are good, but unfortunately, only one can have a job, and in the absence of documented performance issues leading to termination, the person that has been around the longest gets the job. I know that in Minneapolis when teachers bid for open jobs, seniority hasn’t been the sole determining factor of who gets the job for at least 18 years. In the past, if there was a substantive educational reason the more senior applicant was less suitable, they did not have to be offered the job. So, if the most senior applicant was not Montessori certified, but the second most senior was, the administrator could have documented the decision and hired the Montessori certified candidate for a Montessori school. This has not been the case for the last several years because all open positions are filled with “interview and select.“ Seniority only gets one in the interview pool, but does not guarantee selection at the new school.

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/17/2012 - 09:19 am.

    As usual, Ray gets it.

    The discussion here is a little disappointing, except for Ray and Joe.

    Mr. Swift goes on and on with his usual anti-union rant which is no surprise to regular readers. Because there are problems with the school system, Mr. Swift, does not mean that you have any solutions. I remind you that you were an unsuccessful candidate for school board, and even though you were the endorsed GOP candidate, you did not make it through the primaries. Why might that be?

    I am also a little disturbed by one of the things Beth Hawkins said in her piece: “It means teachers who cannot be fired..” Do you mean, Beth, incompetent teachers or… If you mean incompetent teachers then there is already a mechanism for removal.

    And that brings us to the crux of the problem, as far as I am concerned. I have zero tolerance for incompetent teachers. But how “competence” is to be spelled out is critical as Ray pointed out. And it is NOT to be measured solely or even predominantly by test scores for reasons that should be obvious. If the test scores in Edina are markedly higher than those in the inner TwinCities, is this solely because all the good teachers are in Edina and the bad ones in the cities?

    And I encourage anyone interested to read carefully the current LIFO related bill, that I sincerely hope Mark Dayton will veto. Despite claims to the contrary, layoffs would be based on “competence” and not on seniority. Teachers will be binned based on competence – the number of bins being unspecified – and then only within these bins will seniority be taken into account. So If you wish to dispose of a senior teacher – who incidentally has a high salary – simply bin them in the lowest competence slot. Shazam, they are gone and seniority doesn’t matter. Of course this could never happen because, in contrast to teachers, there are no incompetent or dishonest administrators.

    And how “competence” will be measured is not spelled out. This whole bill is a recipe for disaster and will not improve our schools at all.

    PLUS – all the crocodile tears about preventing wonderful young teachers from being laid off are pathetic. If we supported our schools adequately, this would not be necessary.

    I am happy that these matters are being discussed. But let’s do school improvement right and not simply use an ALEC script.

  8. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 02/17/2012 - 09:24 am.

    Bill;I feel you. And there


    I feel you. And there are districts where it would be impossible to counter your points. But….

    Teachers with tenure and seniority can of course be fired in Minneapolis as elsewhere. But the reality is they aren’t. There is no systemic evaluation system, although one is in development. The union-developed peer assistance and review process for failing teachers is oversubscribed and results in a laughably low number of dismissals. I believe the union, by way of trying to illustrate that no changes were needed, said of 118 teachers counseled by the program last year, all but three were returned to the classroom. Administrators–who need evaluation and oversight themselves–resort instead to “excessing,” which results in forced placements, often over tenured teachers with seniority and demonstrated records of effectiveness.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/17/2012 - 12:50 pm.

    Thanks for asking!

    Gleason, my campaign was targeted by the Saint Paul Federation of teachers because I was proposing some of the exact same, common sense reforms that are making their way through the legislature right now. I threatened the status quo, therefore I threatened the union’s control of SPPS.

    As Beth illustrates, even staunch union supporters are now in agreement, albeit grudgingly, that what I was saying back in 2001 was correct.

    I guess you could say I was ahead of my time.

    In a way, I almost hope Dayton does choose to veto the LIFO bill, and if you were a more thoughtful observer of events and public sentiment, you’d understand why.

    By all means, do call Dayton and tell him to veto it.

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