Realigned teachers, eight months later

Last summer, Lyndale Community School teacher Tobe Burdette found himself realigned into a position as a Southwest High guidance counselor. "I love Southwest as much as my old school - but my first day here, I pulled to the curbside of Lyndale and I cried my eyes out. It completely shattered my world," the 62-year-old Burdette said.

Seven months after budget cuts, enrollment drops and legal rules shifted 140 Minneapolis teachers into new jobs, many echo Burdette's sentiments. Several teachers took leaves of absence, retirement or jobs elsewhere.

Burdette, with 35 years of experience, was the second-most-senior teacher in the district. Even though he was a guidance counselor 28 years ago, he wasn't prepared for realignment. Some warned him that Southwest was a school that would try his patience, but he wanted to prove himself. It was also one of just two full-time positions available when his chance to bid for a new position came.

When the "foreigner" arrived at Southwest, the rumors seemed true. Burdette didn't find a lot of support immediately from teachers, administrators and students, he said. Rather, he had to earn it.

"The treatment I got was like a first-year teacher. It felt like starting over," he said. "The school system didn't help me. I helped myself."

The counselor went to work early and stayed late. Burdette, a Haitian native who is Asian and black, applied his cultural knowledge and experience to the task. He began mentoring only three boys; now he works with 22 at-risk youth, including some coping with minority issues. "I'm kind of like a grandfather. These kids and teachers respect me. They weren't easy, but I never lost my temper," he said.

As a bonus, Burdette sees some of the kids he taught years ago at Lyndale. Although he'd like to stick to his new job, he said that his principal has already told him that he'll be replaced next year. He said computer skills are becoming a big part of counseling, and he needs additional training. He said that was another shame about realignment; those moved didn't always get the needed training to catch up.

Still, he insists, "I can't say enough positive things about Southwest."

Education's Dark Ages

Burdette's story underscored a district postrealignment analysis. According to Minneapolis Teachers Federation President Louise Sundin, realignment helped Minneapolis schools that were in greatest need add more senior staff and gain stability. Although Burdette's position may be fleeting, many other realigned teachers would retain their new positions - some of which used to have high turnover rates.

Nevertheless, a teacher's union study said that most teachers, realigned or not, believed that realignment was wrong and that the actions taken were messy. Many teachers got more than they bargained for.

Nicole Kanieski hopes to leave the district next year. That's because she went from teaching mainstream elementary classes at Whittier Community School, 2620 Grand Ave., to Level Three Emotional Behavior Disorders - the most severe level - at Washburn High, 201 W. 49th St.

Although the 10-year veteran anticipated difficulties in the job, she hadn't guessed that the real problems would have nothing to do with the job description. "There was no money, no curriculum, no lesson plans and no resources" at Washburn, she said.

Most classroom teachers who were moved had second licenses in specialties such as special education or guidance; so far this year, 87 realigned teachers have dropped those licenses. Kanieski won't strategically drop her specialty license because, "it's a principle thing. The whole reason I got the license was to educate children. And I spent a lot of money on it."

After a lot of soul-searching, Kanieski said that she's not sure who's to blame. "I'm for seniority, but the way the law was applied didn't have anything to do with seniority. This was a very unfortunate circumstance because it put the union in the middle of a bad situation. It hurt a lot of people and weakened relationships in places that it never should have," she said.

Realignment's purpose is to ensure that the most-senior teachers survive layoffs. However, those with multiple licenses could be shifted more easily; as Kanieski notes, specialty license trumped seniority, and instead of conserving tenured teachers' jobs, the rules caused displacement.

Realignment also put knots into school families and created mistrust toward the district and union. Dee Lundell, who's taught 37 years, 12 of those in the Minneapolis district, said, "It really screwed up [teaching] teams. There's this idea that education is an assembly line and kids are just pieces on it - but that's not the way it works. It takes so long to develop relationships," she said.

Lundell planned to leave the district after being moved from a 4th-grade classroom at Ramsey International Fine Arts Elementary, 1 W. 49th St. to Harrison High School, a North Side lockdown facility for high schoolers with emotional problems. She ultimately postponed her departure until next fall.

"I didn't retire earlier because I was just having so much fun teaching 4th-graders. The issue wasn't that I wasn't capable of doing my new job, but I wanted to be doing what I was doing," Lundell said.

A game of chance

Eric Sisler, who previously taught physical education at Armatage Community and Montessori School, 2501 W. 56th St. became an elementary education teacher at Ericsson Elementary, 4315 31st Ave. S. Sisler agreed that teachers should be able to manage their careers. Although he's having a good year, he said the way realignment happened would never sit right with him: "Teachers should have a choice. It's like the Dark Ages not having any control over what you're going to do."

The 22-year Minneapolis veteran participated in a lawsuit against the district last summer to stop realignment. Still, he considers himself lucky to be teaching in an area where he has a lot of experience. Since Ericsson closes next year, he couldn't predict what he'll teach next, but he won't shed his specialist license because it'd be so expensive to get it back.

However, Sisler's wife Donna Hoop, who was also realigned, dropped of one of her three licenses. Hoop, who's spent 20 years in the district, formerly taught elementary classes at Keewaydin Community School, 5209 30th Ave. S. Now, she instructs autistic kids at Roosevelt High School, 4029 28th Ave. S.

Hoop once strove to get out of special education, but now she plans to stay since she doesn't know where else to turn. She said if she'd been notified earlier about realignment, she probably would've dropped her license sooner. "There's less of a sadness now, but in special education, the problem becomes boredom," she said. "Classes are mostly boys, and they don't make a ton of progress."

Also, the face of her new school is a lot different, "I'm in a big staff now, and it's harder to get to know people than at a smaller elementary school. In a big school, you don't connect with half of the people in the building ever because everyone is so spread out."

Guy Rybarczyk, who's in his eighth year in the district, said his circumstances weren't as traumatic as many because his licensure is relatively new. He was realigned from Burroughs, 1601 W. 50th St., into Jefferson as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. He'd taught ESL just two years ago, while many realigned peers received special education assignments.

Rybarczyk said he felt welcomed by his Jefferson colleagues. "I didn't have a big transition to make, but I'll never feel good about this. In the private sector, it wouldn't be easy to swallow either, even if it turned out well," he said.

Sundin, who defended realignment as a way to keep the most-senior teachers employed, said, "The processes developed were meant to be fair to everybody. Sometimes it may be poorly done, but with a better understanding of the processes that hadn't been used in 20 years, it should get more efficient."

She said the union is working with the district on state legislation that allows them to negotiate realignment rules. Whatever rules exist will get used; Sundin notes the district's $24 million projected shortfall next year; with 10 schools closing and 17 others merging, moving or blending, layoffs and realignment will happen this summer.

Sundin said that schools should prepare team-building activities and social events over the summer to welcome new staff and create a rapport.

Can the district get a jump on reassignments and at least avoid last summer's turmoil?

District spokesperson Sarah Snapp said officials couldn't predict how many teachers would be realigned because they need finalized budgets - a process that's just starting. A final budget can't be released until the Legislature sets 2005-06 school finances and adjourns, probably around June.

At Southwest, Burdette plans to look past realignment's continuing wounds. "We want to be positive in this school system and save it, not bash it," he said. "It's dying now and depends on things you can do as an individual, which is what counseling is about."