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Anoka-Hennepin: a Q&A with Superintendent Dennis Carlson

“Negotiations are always difficult, particularly as you get close to the end. We hope we are close to the end.”

Tuesday, this space carried a Q&A with Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, about the union’s recent decision to ask members to “work to rule.” As a result, teachers in the state’s largest district are avoiding work outside of the work day as outlined in the contract.

Dennis Carlson

In the spirit of fair play, MinnPost asked Superintendent Dennis Carlson if he’d also do an interview. He took us up on the invitation, but we had a little trouble framing questions he could answer. The state-appointed mediator now overseeing the closed talks has asked the parties not to discuss the negotiations publicly or to try their cases in the media.

And so what follows is an edited transcript of an interview that we kicked off by inviting Carlson to start by framing a question he could answer.

One piece of helpful context: The state used to fine school districts that did not have contracts with their collective bargaining units by Jan. 15 of each year. The hefty penalties typically worked against management at the negotiating table. A couple of years ago lawmakers did away with it.

MinnPost: What would you like people to know about your contract talks and Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota’s work-to-rule action?

Dennis Carlson: It’s clearly a strategy they use. It’s not one that always serves the students and parents well. The things that teachers do — I married an English teacher. And the amount of homework and preparation for classroom, whether it’s a course outline or what’s happening tomorrow, it’s an awful lot of work that occurs outside of the normal classroom.

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Other things that we count on them to do are letters of reference for students applying to college. And again I can recall my wife doing a number of those. We also look for letters of reference for students looking for scholarships. The Wallin Education Partners is the biggest one we have, that’s $16,000 plus a college adviser. So some of these are very high-stakes requests that we give the staff and we would certainly hope that they would continue.

Negotiations are always difficult, particularly as you get close to the end. We hope we are close to the end. We’re not sure. My sense is that the negotiations that are unresolved have something to do with the upcoming legislative session. Otherwise we’d have made more progress — that’s just my sense of it. But I feel like there’s going to be pressure on our state Legislature to [restore] the Jan. 15 deadline and obviously those districts not settled will be evidence that the Jan. 15 deadline is needed. I don’t agree with that.

I know districts nearby in our own backyard have met a couple of times, looked at the available money and settled the contract and they’re done. So it seems to vary from district to district. I think when you get in the larger districts — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley, Osseo and the larger districts — then it seems like a greater politic gets involved. 

MP: Do you have thoughts on why that is?

DC: Just that in any legislative session there are lobbyists that hold different points of view, that are speaking for their constituents’ points of view and who want to accomplish those things during the session. I assume we come somewhere in those strategies. But I’m obviously not in the meetings so I don’t know who’s trying to do what. But I feel like we ought to be further along in our negotiations process than we are. I mean, we’re over half a year in. We’d have liked to have had a contract at the start of the school year.

MP: It’s my understanding that unlike the process I am most familiar with, which is Minneapolis, that you’ve actually had people turn out to watch the talks.

DC: I think that was a request that the union made, to have teachers come to the meeting to get a better understanding both of the information presented by the district and I assume also get more involved in the process. That’s my understanding. I don’t attend, but I get reports of 30 to 40 people at each one, which would certainly be unusual.

MP: Do you think that’s good, having people watch the talks?

DC: I think sometimes it’s good. I think any time you can inform people it’s good. If you’re using it for theater or if you’re using it to promote one side and not gain an understanding of the other side, then I’m not sure it’s productive to the end in mind.

I’ve probably already said more than I should. I think the most important thing from my point of view is you want to bring this to a positive resolution, that’s the goal. I’m already disappointed in the length of time it’s taken. I think we should have been much further along and yet nonetheless here we are. And that’s where I think there are different motives in terms of completing this. I would have preferred to have this completed, as I said, by the start of the year. I assume some wanted to have it go into the legislative session where you can add some other goals.

MP: Should I ask you about your legislative wish list?

DC: It’s a policy year, so we have a policy wish list. We always have a funding wish list, just never know when it might pop up. We’d like both a policy and a funding fix with the compensatory formula. We need some flexibility in the compensatory language to focus on where we need it the most, where the achievement gap is the highest or where we need to serve students in poverty. That flexibility we’ve used for I think it’s nine years now and it’s worked very well for us. We have one of the lowest achievement gaps in the state, very low among the larger districts. And so that piece is always on the top of our list.

And we have a five-year consent decree with the federal government on our anti-bullying measures that we think are some of the best anywhere. And we’re going to get legislation that may or may not comply with that, so that’s a concern to us.

I think the other thing I would say on the funding end is if I had any money, and we’ve done this as a district with some strategic investments that we’ve made, I’d fund 4-year-old preschool. We get a huge return on that investment. We’ve piloted that, we’re in our second year. They come in at something like 30 percent proficiency and they end up at 85 percent or more.

And we need money on the formula. You want us to settle contracts with teachers, we need money on the formula. If you give us categorical funding for preschool scholarships, for all-day K, that’s all dedicated money. That doesn’t help us at all in terms of settling the contract. If you want to help us settle the contract, give us unrestricted money and we can do that.

We are very sympathetic to the teachers. We have had a number of years that we’ve asked them to make sacrifices with no step movement. Our most experienced people at the top have not gotten significant raises for the last two to three rounds, so four to six years. We’re sympathetic to that. We just need more funding from the state if we’re going to fund the increases that people would like to see.