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

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 there aren’t even ballpark guesses.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”