Forget school closings, bulging classrooms and a state budget forecast that can only mean more belt-tightening. The hottest potato facing Minneapolis Public Schools is the very real possibility that a deadlock may force a teachers strike in coming weeks.
Neither side has come right out and used the “S” word, but that hasn’t stopped parents groups from engaging in rampant handicapping: Will voters blame the school board and administration for the inconvenience of a strike? Or are some segments of the community, particularly African Americans on the North Side, frustrated enough with the status quo to withstand a walkout?
At the heart of the looming impasse is district leaders’ desire for dramatic change in the way schools are staffed. Right now, teaching positions are filled on the basis of seniority. School board members want to give principals and school-based teams the ability to hire the teachers they think will make the best addition to an individual school.
There’s no shortage of education policy experts who agree that the change, known in education jargon as “interview-and-select,” is crucial to MPS’ reform efforts.
For their part, negotiators for the teachers union argue that teachers shouldn’t be scapegoats for problems caused by woefully inadequate state funding. Decreasing class sizes should be the first priority, they say, followed by shoring up discipline.
Without settlement, district faces $1 million fine
Following eight months of fruitless talks, the union in November asked the state to appoint a mediator. Neither side can comment on the negotiations during mediation, but students and parents soon should have a sense of whether there’s progress. If there’s no signed contract by Jan. 15, MPS must pay the state a fine of $1 million.
Under the current contract, which expired in June, teachers bid for open positions; the applicant with the most seniority gets the job. Historically, this has meant that the most experienced teachers gravitate toward high-performing schools serving children from affluent families — in Minneapolis, these kids are usually white.
Conversely, the schools with the largest numbers of low-income kids, minorities, English-language learners and special-education students suffer from high teacher turnover. According to district statistics, from 2000 to 2003, five high-poverty MPS elementary schools had turnover of more than 200 percent. Turnover at Jordan Park was 443 percent; Lincoln Elementary saw 330 percent; Green Central Park, 333 percent; Cityview, 258 percent; and Anderson Open, 222 percent. (Jordan Park and Lincoln were among five schools closed last spring.)
The state funding cuts of the last six years have only worsened the problem. Layoffs have reached so deep into union seniority lists that most Minneapolis teachers now either have 10 or more years of experience or are brand new. The layoffs also decimated the ranks of the district’s teachers of color: In interviews conducted before negotiations began, School Board Chair Pam Costain estimated that just 10 percent of the district’s 3,300 teachers are minorities.
“We believe the ability to select and create teams is essential to any reform,” Costain said earlier this week. “I just wish everyone would understand — and I mean this sincerely — how much we value our teachers.”
District’s seniority system now an anachronism
Minneapolis’ system of staffing by seniority is something of an anachronism. Many districts in Minnesota and in large cities across the country either never had seniority-based systems or have negotiated more flexibility. St. Paul made the change eight years ago.
Policy experts say empowering schools to select teachers has been instrumental to highly touted reforms in Chicago, New York and other struggling urban districts.
In response to a student exodus sparked by the launch of Massachusetts’ first charter schools, Boston administrators and union leaders in 1995 teamed up to create a number of “pilot schools” that operate outside traditional union parameters. Because research has shown that disadvantaged students often thrive with longer school days, for example, pilot school teachers must be willing to work extra hours — for more pay.
Staffing flexibility would also allow MPS to create culturally-specific programs and to ensure the mix of new and experienced teachers that is thought to give schools both energy and mentoring capacity. And it would resolve long-simmering tensions over staffing schools with specialized programming.
Right now, in order to bid for a job, a teacher must be licensed to perform it. Someone with a license to teach high school math can’t teach special ed, for example. When the district opens an innovative program, it often needs staff with specialized training that does not result in a particular license. The teachers who are the best candidates may not be the licensed applicants with the most seniority.
One of Seth Kirk’s two kids attends Armatage Montessori, which uses a curriculum that’s designed to be taught by teachers trained in Montessori methods. In recent years, staff openings haven’t always been filled by teachers with Montessori credentials. The situation was eventually resolved by a side agreement between MPS and the union, but not before Kirk became a sort of lay expert on its wrinkles.
Armatage’s Montessori program isn’t the only school that needs to hire on factors other than seniority and license, he adds. Whittier International Elementary has been able to circumvent the system in hiring International Baccalaureate teachers because it has special, temporary status as a new school. MPS’ language-immersion schools also have obvious teacher requirements.
Parent frustrated by both sides’ narrow focus
Kirk attended most of this year’s negotiating sessions before they were closed for mediation. He came away frustrated that both sides seemed focused on individual contract clauses. It would have been more productive to start by reaching consensus on what Minneapolis schools need to look like and then figure out what change is needed, he says.
“Most people have the sense that something has to change, that we’re at a real pivotal point in the district,” he says. “If everyone were talking about what the problems are, they would be in a better position to resolve this.”
Instead, Kirk says, many of the talks he attended bogged down on issues that could be better addressed through improved workplace communication. Teachers, for example, complained that they are not routinely notified when a kid with a violent record is brought into a school. It’s an important issue, says Kirk, but “Why is this happening in contract negotiations? You want to write into the contract that all discipline policies should be written into the contract?”
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Robert Panning-Miller calls interview-and-select a red herring. “It’s not going to close the achievement gap, it’s not going to increase test scores,” he said. “It’s going to frustrate teachers and make things hard in schools.”
The focus should be on increasing funding, he added. “State dollars have failed to keep up with the needs of the students in Minneapolis, and across the state,” he said. “Teachers have continually had more and more demands made on their time without compensation.”
A levy last renewed in 2000 was supposed to guarantee class sizes of just 19 children in the earliest grades and 26 in high school. Many elementary classes, however, have more than 30 students — too many for even the most gifted, dedicated teacher when the majority are struggling.
Two weeks ago, dozens of teachers wearing red T-shirts packed a school board meeting. In years past, no doubt the sight — and the implied threat that families could find themselves scrambling to care for kids during a teachers strike — would have chilled the interest of anyone hoping for re-election to the board. This time, however, community members in attendance urged the board to stick to its guns.
The board members are tight-lipped when asked about the strike, but district insiders bet they’re prepared to go to the mat. The board’s four new members ran on reform platforms and have shown a willingness to dig in and make politically unpopular decisions in their first year in office. Costain, one of the newcomers, laid out her vision for changes to the contract within days of taking office. A fifth board member, SharonHenry-Blythe, has already said she will not seek re-election.
For his part, Kirk hopes the mediator can craft a third option. One reason his children’s school is so successful, he believes, is because everyone — families, teachers, administrators — wants to be there and is invested in its success. He’s concerned that any resolution to the deadlock that sacrifices one side’s interests to the other will have long-term repercussions. “It’s hard to see how everyone comes out smiling from that one,” he says.
Beth Hawkins, former reporter and editor for City Pages, writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.