Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Minneapolis contract impasse could derail system for placing most qualified schoolteachers

The $800,000 fine Minneapolis Public Schools had to cough up in January when the district and its teachers union were still at an impasse regarding a new contract?

That was painful, sure, particularly in light of the budgetary steamroller that’s poised to roll over the state’s schools. But in terms of day-to-day disruption in the classroom, it’s probably not as painful as the consequences if no new contract is in place within two weeks.

The fine print is enough to clog a, well, a union contract, but the upshot is that if there is no new contract by April 15, several agreements designed help the district put the most qualified teacher in a particular classroom will expire.

Uprooted and upset?
As a result, when the process of assigning teachers to jobs for next fall begins later in the month, an unknown number of teachers may find themselves uprooted from long-term or specialized positions.

Equally upsetting, students in the city’s poorest schools may once again find themselves facing a staff of strangers on the first day of school in September. They were supposed to be given some badly needed stability by the agreement, which partially bypasses union seniority rolls when matching teachers to jobs.

Too bad, then, that neither side appears to have much room to bargain.

“We don’t have a lot to bring to the table,” said school board Chair Tom Madden. “At least this time around, everyone in the state knows that.”

Tom Madden
Tom Madden

A central irony to the dispute is that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers enjoys a national reputation as a progressive union that often has been out far ahead of district administrators when it comes to the kinds of reforms that teachers are likely to balk at. With one notable recent exception, a succession of MFT leaders has pushed for greater flexibility in Minneapolis schools. After more than seven straight years of cutbacks, however, teachers likely feel poorly repaid for their willingness to take risks.

Two years ago, the last time the district and the union were hung up at the bargaining table, the sticking point was the district’s desire to move away from a system of staffing schools by seniority. Under bidding, as the process was known, when a job came open, teachers bid for it, and the one with the most seniority got it.

This made for poor fits when teachers without, say, Montessori or foreign-language training bid into a Montessori or Spanish-immersion school. A bigger problem, though, was that struggling schools ended up with staggering teacher-turnover rates as new teachers bid to get out. According to district statistics, turnover in MPS’ five poorest schools ranged up to 443 percent from 2000 to 2003.

Six months after the deadline for a new contract lapsed, both sides were able to agree on several memoranda of understanding that gave district administrators more flexibility. Since then, hiring at schools with specialized curricula has been done according to the side agreements.

‘Interview and select’ system phased in
The district also has phased in a variation of an alternative known as “interview and select,” where jobs are filled by a school-based panel of teachers and the principal. The candidate pool is made up both of the most senior teachers interested in the job and some who want it for other reasons.

“I think people need to realize the advances we’ve made have been good for kids, first and foremost, but also good for teachers,” said Madden. “We know teaching teams and groups that want to work together are more successful.”

The new system has been generally well received by all, agreed MFT President Lynn Nordgren. But the administration is now asking for authority to bypass seniority when deciding who to lay off.

Lynn Nordgren
Lynn Nordgren

“The district has added provisions to interview and select that we cannot agree to,” said Nordgren. “Once again, they have overreached.”

When the memoranda expire on Thursday, the district will be bound contractually to return to the bidding system to assign teachers next fall. The churn won’t be limited to open jobs, either, according to Madden. Teachers hired under the new system could lose their jobs, and any layoff over the summer could cause “realignment,” a round of musical chairs that could result in the moving of long-tenured teachers into vacant seats that they may not want or that may be held by junior colleagues who must then bid elsewhere.

Layoffs are hardly a remote possibility, given uncertainty regarding the state’s budget, the continuing reverberations from the governor’s decisions to “unallot” $1.5 billion in state school funding last summer and delay payment of another $423 million this spring, and the district’s own anticipated $19 million shortfall.

Those budget woes, of course, are at the center of the teachers’ frustration with the current talks.

“We realize these are tough times,” said Nordgren. “It’s not that we’re trying to be greedy, but we have to keep our profession sustainable.”

Because of wage concessions and changes in the cost of benefits to employees, a new teacher with dependents now takes home just $1,000 a month after deductions, said Nordgren. “No one is going to be able to afford to come into this district,” she said.

Faced with a similarly bleak financial picture, teachers in St. Paul in December inked a contract that included a 1 percent pay increase.

In Minneapolis, even teachers who can make ends meet are angry that they have not been paid some $4.6 million in performance incentives built into the last contract. Administrators counter that they paid out all of the money they got from the state for the incentives program, and that their contract with MFT explicitly lets them off the hook when the funds run out.

Q-Comp, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s version of pay for performance, has been a centerpiece of the current state administration’s education policy. In recent weeks, the governor has called for the program’s expansion statewide and made it a hallmark of Minnesota’s failed bid for federal Race to the Top education stimulus money.

Pawlenty’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, district administrators said that in past years the state has failed to pay for all of the performance incentives the district has committed to. Often, the district has dipped into its own budget to make up the shortfall, they said.

The politics make little difference to teachers who are now being told they will not be paid for work accomplished as long ago as the 2008-2009 school year, countered Nordgren. “We don’t think that’s kosher,” she said. “Teachers are already working 12-hour days and lots of other overtime.”

Madden said the district is sympathetic, but coffers are bare. “We’re asking for some extremely important things for academic reasons, and we don’t have any money,” he said.

Some of the sluggish pace can be attributed to the busy schedule of the state mediator the two sides have used since soon after talks started last fall, both sides say. State law does not impose any more deadlines for agreement like the one that came and went in January.

Instead, says Madden, the consequences that are likely to cascade will be the result of work that doesn’t get done. “It’s frustrating for everyone,” said Madden.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/29/2010 - 09:01 am.

    MFT has been more cooperative in re-making the byzantine rules that dictate their work day; excellent.

    But it cannot be forgotten that those cumbersome work rules were put in place by them in the first place.

    I have not read one proposed change that wouldn’t be recognized as the norm by any private sector professional. Teaching professionals need not be reminded that their profession exists to serve students; it’s the leftist union die-hards that are fighting tooth and nail to protect the failed status quo at any cost.

    In addition to making it easier to make assignments that best fit the pupils, public school proponents are also anxiously awaiting legislation that puts the union and districts on an even playing field during contract negotiations.

    Who ever thought putting school districts’ necks under an $800,000 knife connected to a clock controlled by the unions was a good idea?

    People that make the welfare and success of the public school student the first priority cannot help but hope the defenders of the status quo are not successful. Our kids are depending on caring, rational adults to provide them with the education our state’s constitution is supposed to ensure them.

  2. Submitted by James Warden on 03/29/2010 - 12:46 pm.

    That $1,000 per month figure doesn’t pass the smell test.

    I’m making less than an entry-level teacher (about $30K/year), and my checks are about $900 per two-week pay period. I’m single, so I’m admittedly not paying the extra cost to insure a family. Then again, I also don’t work for a large employer that can likely get better insurance rates.

    The July 2007-June 2008 salary schedule is the most recent one I could find. It lists a starting teacher as making $33,815. Not sure how this has changed, but I’d guess not enough to drop down to $1,000 per month.

    Here’s the link, about 2/3 of the way down the page.

Leave a Reply