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MPS deal looks like a win-win: Everybody gives, everybody gets

MFT members will vote on the package, which runs from 2013 to 2015 retroactively, from March 17 to 24. If they approve it, school board members will vote at their April meeting.

It was November, about the time that hell froze over hereabouts, when talks between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and its teachers union moved behind closed doors. The thaw currently under way, it appears, is both literal and metaphoric.

Over the last two days, details of the tentative contract settlement ironed out in those talks have emerged. In contrast to years past, the proposed agreement seems like a win-win.

Everybody gives, everybody gets.

And not just management and labor: Students at both the district’s highest- and lowest-performing schools should benefit from a creative mix of provisions designed to steer high-quality teachers where they are needed most, to make their workloads more attractive and to allow individual schools to make big changes.

Bernadeia Johnson

“It feels different this time,” Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said in an interview Wednesday. “We asked for some aggressive stuff. We asked for some out of the box stuff and they” — teachers — “rose to the challenge.”

Different indeed. The board that will be asked to approve it has been widely perceived as divided over how far to push labor. And district leaders have been hard-pressed to find the resources to do anything meaningful to lighten teachers’ loads.

For nearly a year, board leaders have maintained that all its members backed Johnson’s “Shift” proposal, which rested on some of the contract changes in the proposal. There was, however, doubt that they would back the superintendent when things got contentious.

Lynn Nordgren

And in coming months the leader they allowed the superintendent to push, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) President Lynn Nordgren, faces a re-election challenge from a radical wing of the union that is already using the proposal to paint her as giving away the store.

A student-centered package

In short, all of the adults involved potentially had a lot to lose. And yet, if early reviews of the agreement are borne out, a remarkably child-centered package emerged.

“We’ve been paying more attention to rules and mandates than to our kids,” said Nordgren. “This is a chance to bring schools to life again. … It’s really an exciting opportunity.”

“The Shift is on,” said Board Chair Richard Mammen. “The collaborative agreement we’ve seen is clearly aligned with the progressive principles the board established last May.

“The teachers and the superintendent have agreed to keep building a culture where everyone is respected and accountable for the achievement of all our students. They agreed that change is needed. I’m looking forward to understanding the details, the expected results and the conversations ahead.”

More than a contract

If the plan works, it will be more than a contract. Teachers — a politically bruised and embattled population in the current era — will have forums that give them more ownership over deciding what their students need. That buy-in is expected to be as big a part of the solution as the agreement’s fine print.

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Teachers will get raises in each of the contract’s two years, according to a formula designed to not compound disparities. In the first year, every teacher would get an increase of $1,335, equivalent to 2 percent of the average salary.

In the second, individual teachers raises would be 2 percent of the wage corresponding to their experience and education level. All will get an additional $600 to put toward health insurance.

The first real new money in years, the cash will be nice. But the real promise of the package lies in its series of provisions that should trade off better working conditions at struggling schools with changes that could include longer school days and years.

New categories of schools

The two main planks are contained in memoranda of agreement that create two new, potentially overlapping categories of schools. The first, High Priority Schools, are the lowest-performing 25 percent of programs. These schools either have very low student proficiency ratings or exceptionally low student growth rates.

The agreement would “create a picket fence” to encircle those schools, explained Michael Goar, district CEO. Provisions would help create more stable school staffs and make it more attractive for more experienced teachers to bid into them.

The agreement would end the forced placement of teachers who could not find jobs elsewhere in these programs, and would give principals the option of hiring new staff from outside the district pool.

Equally crucial, the priority schools will be able to hire for a coming year in February or March, months sooner than in years past. This will enable the district to compete for top talents that typically go elsewhere because they are not willing to wait until the 11th hour to learn whether they will have a job.

Class sizes for early years

Class sizes in the crucial literacy-building years of preschool through third grade will be capped at 18 pupils per teacher, with some flexibility for the district. In buildings where space is short, this might mean larger classes taught by more than one educator.

Past class-size caps have proven tough for administrators to adhere to, particularly in low-income communities where highly mobile student populations mean dramatic fluctuations in classroom populations. Teachers will have a hotline to call if a principal stuffs extra bodies into a packed room; HQ has five days to find a fix.

The district can work with the union to create more instructional time in the high-needs programs, too. In some, this will take the form of summer school and classes convened during breaks and on weekends. Teachers at the schools will work a year that includes five more days of professional development. If they work any portion of the longer year, they will be paid.

And Johnson and her team got the centerpiece of the Shift proposal, the ability to free the district’s highest- and lowest-performing schools from all kinds of district protocols and contract provisions. Community Partnership Schools may have longer days or years, may adopt a particular curricular focus and will receive many of the staffing concessions offered to the high priority schools.

“It’s important to let schools differentiate or have some flexibility about what the site feels is needed to be successful with their students,” said Rick Kreyer, MSP’s executive director of human resources and operations, and one of the contract’s chief negotiators. “It’s about creating a system to be flexible enough to identify what’s working.”

Schools may apply to be partnership schools, with a site-based committee making the case for why it should be allowed to adopt an approach the educators in the building believe will work for their students.

Site-based committees at lower-performing partnership schools also will participate in their school’s redesign, but Johnson will retain the final say. She can decide that a school needs to become a partnership school, and may decide a school year that is up to 211 days long is necessary.

When schools are “tapped” in this fashion, Goar explained, teachers will be canvassed to determine how many support the new approach and whether some would prefer to transfer. The idea is to ensure that everyone wants to be in the program and supports the vision.

“This will enable us to do something very drastically different with this school,” said Goar. “Right now, we do not have that shared vision.”

New provisions to ease achievement-gap debate

The partnership schools provision goes directly to the heart of the debate of recent years over the achievement gap. Many of the district schools that will be high priority are located in the same neighborhoods as high-performing charter schools that meet or exceed state averages for student academic performance.

District educators have been divided over the curricular philosophies employed at the high-performing schools, and efforts by MPS leaders to get district teachers to adopt them have flagged. Under the proposed contract, teachers who don’t like a partnership school’s new approach can leave.

A provision would make the removal of a small subset of underperforming teachers faster. If an outside mentor determines that the teacher is not likely to work out for the school, the teacher can be transferred within 45 days, versus eight or more months in the current contract.

The proposal includes other changes that should streamline teacher workloads. Time set aside for working on individual professional growth plans and for working in teams would be combined, and MPS and the union will jointly conduct an audit of tests administered to get rid of unproductive and burdensome assessments.

MFT members will vote on the package, which runs from 2013 to 2015 retroactively, from March 17 to 24. If they approve it, school board members will vote at their April meeting.

“For me, at the end of the day it’s about who speaks for the kids,” said Goar. “I’m hopeful that this is a change that we need as a city, as a school district and that will produce the change we need.”