Schools notebook // ‘Third voice’ sought in contract negotiations

Group seeking ‘third voice’ in contract negotiations

A coalition of Minneapolis Public Schools parents and former board members, several City Council members and leaders from the local business and faith communities called for an end to seniority-based teacher placement in a letter delivered to the School Board Nov. 1.

The so-called Contract for Student Achievement identified “a legacy of [teacher] contracts that repeatedly put the needs of adults over the academic needs of students” as a primary contributor to the district’s persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color, the state’s largest.

But Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren described the root causes of the achievement gap as societal and said it would take a community effort to close the gap, not just a change to teacher hiring rules. Nordgren described the letter’s implication of an adults-first approach to contract negotiations as “insulting.”

“We need to create stability in our schools,” she said. “Experience creates that stability.”

Lynnell Mickelson, co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a parent activist group, and a signer of the letter, introduced the coalition’s five-point platform at the School Board meeting. It calls for: a shift to performance-based staffing, putting “effectiveness” over seniority in employment decisions; an end to rules that limit hiring to tenured or laid-off teachers; an end to rules that place tenured teachers in schools that may not want to hire them; the option of an extended school day, with additional compensation for teachers; and a simplified process for firing underperforming teachers.

Noting many of those rules were already in place at charter schools, Nordgren cited a 2009 study by Stanford University education researchers that found 83 percent of charter schools performed no better or worse on tests than comparable public schools.

(The framing of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes study has been a source of controversy. Others note 17 percent of charters outperformed comparable public schools in the study, and 46 percent performed about the same.)

Chris Stewart, a former School Board member who added his name to the letter’s signature list, said the coalition aimed to bring a “third voice” to negotiations between the district and teachers’ union. In Stewart’s experience, “it didn’t seem like the public was involved” with past negotiations, he said.

“If people were to see what actually takes place, they would be surprised how little of it has to do with children,” he added.

Other signers included: Southwest-area parent Seth Kirk, a co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis; former School Board members Sharon Henry-Blyth, T. Williams, Catherine Shreves and Dennis Shapiro; John Cairn, former City Council president; current council members Meg Tuthill and Don Samuels; and Rev. Randolph Staten, Coalition of Black Churches board chair, among others.

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Lee resigning from School Board

The School Board’s longest-serving member, Lydia Lee, announced her resignation Nov. 1 “due to family commitments that will take [her] out of Minnesota for an undetermined amount of time.”

Lee’s resignation is effective Jan. 1. A retired middle school math teacher, she won election to the School Board in 2004 and began serving in 2005. She was re-elected in 2008 to a second term that began in 2009.

“This marks the end of 32 years of work in and service to the public school district,” Lee said.

Lee recalled a five-year period when she left the district to work in the private sector. She returned after realizing teaching was her “essence,” she said.

Lee’s current term on the board runs until 2013. District policy allows for the School Board to appoint her replacement, since there will be just one year remaining in her term.

Asked about potential replacements, Lee did not name a specific candidate, but suggested a former School Board member might be a good choice. When Pam Costain resigned last year to become CEO of AchieveMpls, the board appointed former member Peggy Flanagan to serve out the remainder of her term.

Lee said her decision was made more difficult knowing her departure would leave an experience gap in district leadership.

The next most-senior board members, Jill Davis and Carla Bates, were elected in 2008 and are still in first terms. The five other members were elected in 2010 and joined the board just this year.

Board Member Alberto Monserrate praised Lee as a “reliable source of information” who mentored her less-experienced colleagues and freely shared her experience as a classroom teacher.

“We have a board that most of us haven’t served very long, and continuously being able to go back to you and get that perspective and that experience that you have has been extremely valuable,” Monserrate said.

Board Member Hussein Samatar recalled meeting with Lee shortly after his election.

“You were the first board member to reach out to me, to have breakfast and explain a couple of things for me, and I’m really, really grateful for that,” Samatar said.

Lee said she plans to move to California following her resignation, but will maintain ties to Minnesota, where both her son and step-son live.