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Proposed Minneapolis teachers settlement falls short of district’s change agenda

The collaborative “interests-based bargaining” has resulted in a likely contract that gives the district remarkably little of what it initially asked for.

Minneapolis Public School students will get an extra four days in the classroom next year if teachers accept the proposed settlement.

Shortly after their election in the fall of 2010, a slate of incoming Minneapolis School Board members were invited to a meeting at the Minnesota Federation of Teachers headquarters where they were presented with a letter on the union’s letterhead rebuking the outgoing board for creating “ill will” and promising a new era of collaboration.

All but one, Hussein Samatar, signed. MFT President Lynn Nordgren mailed the letters to outgoing board Chair Tom Madden, who subsequently — and for the first time in his term — lost his cool at his last board meeting.

Reaction from many other corners was equally swift and enraged. The district and union had been at a contract impasse since before the start of the 2009-2010 school year. Exhausted, several members of a board that had been resolute in demanding contract reforms did not seek re-election. A number of reform-minded candidates to replace them lost at a labor-dominated city DFL endorsing convention.

Several of the signatories immediately apologized, saying it was a mistake to sign the letter. Many in the Minneapolis Public Schools community still interpreted the episode as confirmation of something widely believed but tough to pin down: The MFT had succeeded in running out the clock.

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Whether the episode was a back-room deal or the misstep of the well-intended but naive may never be known.

What is clear, though, 15 months later is that the collaborative, “interests-based bargaining” that commenced soon after has resulted in a likely contract that gives the district remarkably little of what it initially asked for.

Indeed the proposed deal falls short even of the handful of modest contract changes that critics (whose numbers have increased with each fresh round of talks) predicted when the MFT asked a mediator to close the talks to public scrutiny several weeks ago.

Over the weekend, a copy of the proposed settlement announced last Thursday was posted online. Teachers have until April 13 to decide whether to accept it.

The two main points: The charter schools whose gap-closing strategies the district wanted to attempt have 35 to 40 percent more instructional time. MPS, meanwhile, will have four additional days next year and a slightly longer work week, for which teachers will be paid an additional $3,090.

The district agreed to attempt to limit class sizes in its most chronically underperforming schools, and teachers in the struggling programs may vote to adopt more professional development time, but administrators cannot mandate it, even if they can pay for it.

MPS brass had sought to end the forced placement of “excessed” teachers, those who cannot find a principal willing to offer them a position, in schools where they are not wanted. The tentative agreement would give a “placement committee” final say.

Much of the rest of the 30 pages of understandings and side agreements concerns the creation of task forces, committees and “joint problem-solving protocols” to consider everything from the school calendar to climate.

Back to Tom Madden’s lame-duck meltdown. In December 2010, when incoming board members huddled with the MFT, the district and union had been at loggerheads and without a contract for two years.

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Board members were in the second year of an ambitious reform agenda and wanted 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. The district also wanted to solidify a side agreement over so-called interview-and-select, a contract provision allowing principals to hire whomever they want to fill vacancies.

Yet the administration had little to give teachers to sweeten the pot. Adding insult to injury, it owed union members some $17 million in back pay in merit compensation that MPS never received from the state.

Complicating things further, MPS was under a federal mandate to “turn around” a number of failing schools, partly by keeping kids in school more hours; in addition, leadership had decided to overhaul schools that were perilously close to landing on this probationary list.

As a starting point for discussion with the union, district staff last year prepared a document [PDF] detailing research that showed that flexibility and more instructional time were key to its turnaround efforts. MPS offered the equivalent of 172 school days, while gap-closing charters offered 196 or more—and longer days to boot.

Negotiators eventually asked for about 20 more school days, some of them instructional time and some of them professional development. It wasn’t a radical request: In terms of student achievement, the document asserted, the needle starts to move with the addition of 35 days.

Ideally, each school could staff according to its turnaround model, so there were multiple options for how those hours would have been scheduled. Some schools would have gotten longer days or years and some would get mandatory summer school.

Teachers could have gotten more pay in exchange for more work, or could have adopted staggered schedules. Some of the extra instruction would be accomplished via “blended learning,” using a hybrid of online and traditional methods and some for high-quality afterschool programming.

There was even a model. In 2009, administrators in New Haven, Conn., announced the negotiation of a new teachers’ contract that was hailed as a model of district-union collaboration. Things there were dire, with a full 80 percent of the district’s students impoverished and student performance so bad the city’s mayor, and not an elected board, had been handed control.

“This shows real courage on the union’s part,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “This shows what can happen when adult egos are checked and when adult issues are put aside.”

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten agreed, calling the accord the outgrowth of “respect and trust between the union and the city,” whose mayor had been placed in charge of the failing, desperately impoverished school system.

Teachers in persistently underperforming schools would remain unionized, but lots of the terms contracts traditionally set, including their working hours and the length of the school day, were to be decided at the school level by the principal and an advisory group of parents, teachers and community leaders.

Teachers would know the terms of the job — how many hours, in what setting, etc. — before they took a job at a school. No one had to agree to a radical change in working conditions.

The theory: A sense of urgency [PDF] is crucial to school reinvention. Turnarounds work when every teacher in the building wants to be there, when they are working for a principal whose vision they share and using a model they are enthusiastic about.

At the same time, teachers at all New Haven schools in the district would be evaluated in part on student test scores and other student performance measures. Outside observers were brought in to observe the highest- and lowest-performing teachers; ineffective ones who did not improve with remedial training were pushed out.

If anything, many reformers thought the deal did not go far enough. It did not scrap tenure, paid bonuses to the staffs of a high-performing school and not individual teachers, allowed a small minority of teachers to block changes endorsed by their colleagues at any given school and did not include provisions to close bad schools.

The New Haven deal did allow the district the flexibility to turn schools around by converting them to charters whose outside operators would decide what model to use and what terms to offer union staff, who could sign on or work in a more traditional school.

On March 1, MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced that the district planned to work with Eric Mahmoud, founder of Harvest Prep Academy, and several other odds-beating charters, to open four MPS-chartered schools over the next 10 years.

“The development of new schools,” Johnson explained, “including self-governed schools and high quality charter schools, is one of the core strategies in the MPS strategic plan to address schools performing in the lowest 25 percent district-wide.”

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In addition to Mahmoud’s first new Mastery School, scheduled to open next fall, MPS has authorized charters for a math and technology high school and Minneapolis College Prep, a high school that will begin operating in September in the building that once housed Lincoln Community School. The district also recently renewed the charter of Friendship Academy.

If teachers ratify the proposed contract, it will run until 2013. Negotiations over the next contract could start later this year.