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

A roundup of teachers union news.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.