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Reformers keep the heat on during now-closed Minneapolis teacher-contract talks

Courtesy of SFER
Protesters from the group Students for Education Reform gathered outside MFT's Nordeast headquarters last week.

Not for years has the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) grapevine been so dry as it has in recent weeks concerning the status of the district’s negotiations with its teacher’s union. Forget informed Kremlinology, the usual suspects aren’t even up for conjecture.

The parties have announced that they expect an agreement exactly one month after their first meeting behind closed doors, a move requested by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT).

Community members tracking the talks are agog. The toughest issues on the table have been there for some eight years and most weren’t even broached during the first five months of talks.

Equally mystifying: MPS leaders, including a board with a labor-friendly majority, insist — and in some detail — that they are firmly behind Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s initiative to free a portfolio of lagging schools from some contract requirements.

When last the two sides met openly the MFT seemed to be doing a good job shooting down all but one meaningful change. Given the seeming impasse, what kind of agreement can be forged in the six sessions scheduled?

Typically, by this stage of the process there’s been enough nattering for observers to estimate the contours of the compromise on the table. This year, with Johnson’s agenda one of the hottest issues in the mayoral contest, there aren’t even ballpark guesses.

Protesting outside the meeting

Last week as leaders of both sides gathered for the second of the closed-door sessions, 50 parents, students, community members and members of the group Students for Education Reform (SFER) were outside protesting.

While some held signs decrying the district’s dismal track record with poor minorities, others shone flashlights through the windows of the MFT’s Nordeast headquarters. It was a moment of pointed political theater, of course.

But to some of the wags outside, any details gathered in the short moments of surveillance would have been nice. Was there food on the table, indicating the parties were dug in for the night? Was the MFT circulating inspirational quotes on colored paper, as it has in past rounds?

Were they even in the same room, or “in caucus” in separate spaces, as they often were during the first five months of talks, during which everything but the toughest of the topics on the table was discussed.

The folks inside promptly shut the blinds.

SFER and its supporters, including leaders of the Contract for Student Achievement, which has monitored several rounds of disappointing negotiations, refused to disperse. After a few minutes, MFT President Lynn Nordgren came outside.

“She said, ‘We love you, we’re in here making decisions because we care about you,’” said SFER’s Minnesota program director, Latasha Gandy. “She said it takes a village.”

According to Gandy, Nordgren also said the MFT felt it had to close the talks because some of those who attended were disruptive. And expressed surprise that most of those attending the protest hadn’t attended the public talks.

About three years old, SFER is a national education reform organization that caught fire virtually overnight. It has chapters on a number of Minnesota campuses, and members have become increasingly prominent fixtures at school board meetings and other policy events.

’38 percent’

Some of those protesting Wednesday night wore stickers over their mouths that read “38 percent” — a reference to the percentage of the district’s students of color who graduate high school on time. Many of them were MPS grads; several, including Gandy, have children in Twin Cities schools.

Closed or not, SFER will keep the heat on in the contract talks, said Gandy. Members have begun a petition and social media campaign, Don’t Shut Us Out, that aims to educate the public about the urgency of the issues facing MPS.

Unless a state mediator closes them, which is the routine policy of the current mediator, public-employee bargaining sessions are open to the public in Minnesota. Until a few years ago, no one attended the MFT-MPS talks that take place every two years.

Eight years ago, however, several school board members were elected who were interested in changing the way that teachers were placed in jobs. The district’s highest-poverty schools had annual turnover rates that ranged past 300 percent, and principals and administrators lacked legal remedies to do anything but hand open jobs to the highest-seniority candidates.

Pushed for contract changes

As part of a highly visible strategic reform effort, the board members began pushing for a number of changes to the contract, including some of those on the table now. Still, no outsiders sat in on the talks themselves.

In 2007, frustrated by a staffing problem at his kids’ school, Seth Kirk started attending talks. He also read the 250-plus-page contract in between sessions.

A mild-mannered engineer, Kirk was outraged. Others joined him, yet the talks finished behind closed doors.

In 2010, some of those who accompanied Kirk, district parent and activist Lynnell Mickelsen and Council of Black Churches Co-Chair Bill English, organized Put Kids First Minneapolis. They later joined forces with others, including former board member and executive cirector of the African American Leadership Forum Chris Stewart, as the Contract for Student Achievement.

Most recently, last week the conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota — not a prominent player on the local education scene — called on Gov. Mark Dayton to propose legislation that would keep public-employee negotiations open regardless of the presence of a mediator.

Although Johnson has been insistent that the public be given as much information as is allowed, MPS leaders and board members discuss strategy in closed executive sessions. Kirk and Mickelsen have made it their business to request audiotapes of the sessions, which are public record once each round of bargaining is completely concluded.

The tapes bear out Board Chair Alberto Monserrate’s insistence that district administrators decided to agree to the last, disappointing contract, according to Mickelsen. The superintendent and her team were not nearly as vocal about demanding change as board members Carla Bates and Hussein Samatar.

Samatar died in August of complications stemming from leukemia. SFER members were among those who packed board meetings at which his replacement was discussed. 

A striking change of tone

The issues on the table now may have been there in some form or another over the last few rounds, but what’s most striking to Mickelsen about the tapes is the change of tone.

During the last round, she said, “There’s no smoking gun [moment] where Bernadeia Johnson says, ‘I want this,’ and the MFT says no,” she said. “I’m surprised how much stronger the current request is.”

At a May meeting, Johnson unveiled “Shift,” a package of gap-closing reforms, to much fanfare. Many of its elements — including longer school days and years at the district’s lowest-performing schools, staffing flexibility and autonomy in exchange for accountability — require changes to the MFT contract.

The district requests did not get a lot of discussion during the negotiations that began in June, according to minutes of the sessions and individuals who attended. But they were the topic of hot debate both in the mayor’s race and at board meetings where Samatar’s replacement was discussed.

As a result, both Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges and all members of the school board — including some whose past support for reform has been tepid — are publicly committed to backing Johnson. Johnson, for her part, has announced a number of potentially big changes she intends to implement on her own.

If the parties adhere to the current schedule, the grapevine won’t have to wait long to come back to life. The last daylong session is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Until then, closed doors notwithstanding, SFER will keep circulating its petition and keep showing up, said Gandy. “We will not stand by,” she said. “We will keep the heat on.” 

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/25/2013 - 11:04 am.

    Interesting tactics

    In my 30 classroom years, I don’t think negotiations between teachers and board were EVER open to the public, but that was in a different state (and in some ways, a different universe). The whole closed-door thing is interesting, largely because it can, and sometimes does, cut both ways. There are advantages and disadvantages for both parties in doing things this way.

    Also interesting are the protests and protesters. I don’t recall ever seeing members of the public protesting over negotiations between board and teachers before, in any of the places I’ve lived, so I hope there’s some follow-up on who and what are involved. That, too, strikes me as a tactic that could cut both ways, depending upon who’s involved and what their particular agenda might be.

    If anything, this seems an interesting confirmation that of all the public entities we’ve created in the United States, school districts continue to be among the most “public,” and publicly-influenced.

  2. Submitted by Chris Lynch on 11/25/2013 - 11:28 am.

    The “Reformers”

    I’ve cut and pasted my response to the recent Star Trib article concerning the same topic here:

    I liked that phrase used by the reporter “those who style themselves school reformers”. How apt. Many of these self-styled know-it-alls often know very little, and sadly, they are just tools of those who want to blame the overwhelmingly hardworking teachers for general societal ills. When these “reformers” are done, schools will be destabilized since all workers, including teachers, will be “at will” employees. They will have few if any rights or protections from sometimes quirky administrators who often know much less than some experienced staff. It will be a race to the bottom as experienced and more expensive employees will be let go in favor of less experienced and cheaper new hires, who often don’t even know they too will be expendable in a few years. Everyone loses in this employee churning scenario, but guess who will suffer the most. Think hard. And teaching will cease being a career that enough talented young people will aspire to, which of course, is already happening. Who wants to put up with this kind of abuse? Really.

  3. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 11/25/2013 - 01:17 pm.

    Pretty amazing

    Just think – its amazing how difficulut it is for the public to get any information on if /what changes may/may not be made to the way public schools in Mpls. operate.

    Thank you to Seth Kirk, Lynnell Mickelsen, Bill English, Chris Stewart, SFER and all others who just want to know what’s going on before it’s too late!

    Operation of our PUBLIC schools comes down to Kremlinology….

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/25/2013 - 03:37 pm.

      Yeah, just like the Supe’s Shift proposal…I’ve never seen such a radical dropsical submitted with so little actual data or info about what it entails. But the deformers all love it…so it must be really bad.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/25/2013 - 02:28 pm.

    How will …

    this decision apply ?

  5. Submitted by Joanne Simons on 11/25/2013 - 05:04 pm.

    SFER: Astro Turf

    What nonsense pretending to be news and reporting. SFER is a phoney front group for the puppet masters orchestrating the demise of public education.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/25/2013 - 06:52 pm.

      That’s all Beth Hawkins knows. “Reform” is a loaded word here. That’s why I call them deformers – it is much more accurate. Catapulting the propaganda, as some former president said.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/26/2013 - 03:45 pm.

      Of course

      This is what anyone who follows the education Rhee-form movement should expect. Simple answers that, in the end, accomplish nothing beyond demonizing teachers and their unions. Of course, no one will admit to being “anti-union” or “anti-teacher.” They’re always “pro-kids,” a sentiment that manifests itself as bashing teachers and unions. Just look at this article: it’s pretty clear who is being painted as the villain.

      Let’s face the facts: This is not about education, and it never has been. Does anyone really think the Koch brothers or ALEC give a rat’s hindquarters about public education? Why would they? It’s just another excuse for shifting their money to the looter class. If we must have the lemon of public education, they may as well make lemonade out of it. We can encourage corporate-run charter schools, and make a killing! If we can get the saps who make up the public to like the idea, so much the better.

      Why do the corporatists hate the teachers’ unions so much? General principle, but consider that teachers and other public employees are the last largely unionized segment of the workforce in America. Do ALEC and the Kochs really want that to catch on? Suppose other workers see that unionized employees are relatively secure in their positions and treated with something approaching dignity–what are they going to think then? It’s far better to nip these ideas in the bud. The key is fomenting class envy, and getting non-unionized employees to despise unions out of jealousy. Perhaps some self-described liberals or progressives will come along and help the job. It’s easier than calling in the Pinkertons!

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/28/2013 - 07:58 pm.

    Modern Reform is just a marketing strategy

    50 years form now, the marketing of education reform will be textbook in college campuses across the nation. For, at the end of the day, that is what all this is.

    There are those in our culture who have fought, tooth and nail, to maintain their place in the dominant culture. The Waltons, Broad’s, Koch’s, Gate’s etc. These owners of America have championed ways to cement their power fighting livable wages for our students parents, and even fighting to eliminate minimum wages.

    Getting progressive, equality minded folks to fight their battle for them is the marketing coup of the century. How do you get well meaning folks like Lynell Mickelson to fight the battle for the Walton’s? As a bonus, how do you drive a meat cleaver through the labor and civil rights movement, the only real threat to dominant culture power in the last 50 years.

    The labor increases of the 40’s and 50’s were a necessary precursor to the civil rights advances of the 60’s and 70’s. Corporate reformers see our kids as a way of disrupting that synergistic relationship. Affected minority groups are understandably frustrated, and feel un-listened to.

    Corporate reformers saw their chance, and promised the world. Some civil rights groups, frustrated by lack of progress, are enticed by these false promises of instant gratification.

    Hundreds of millions of dollars back “grassroots” groups like E4E, and SFER. The greatest thing the Waltons could do for our kids is pay their parents a livable wage. It is easier to buy front groups like SFER and E4E.

    So, the biggest marketing coup has been convincing progressives that the Waltons and Koch’s are on the side of equality, and destroying the bond between the Civil Rights and Labor movements.

    Strategic genius.

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