Teachers union files petition for mediation

Preliminary filing hasn’t been acted on, yet

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers filed a petition for a state mediator to be present in their ongoing contract talks with Minneapolis Public Schools over the district’s winter break, but have since put that process “on hold,” union President Lynn Nordgren said.

Commissioner of Mediation Services Josh Tilsen confirmed Tuesday a petition from the teacher union was on file at his office. Tilsen said he contacted the union and was told “they weren’t quite ready to begin mediation.”

The current round of negotiations has drawn a handful of citizen observers, but the presence of a state mediator would close the talks to the public.

Nordgren said today there were “multiple reasons” for the filing. Negotiations were “becoming more about the time on the day, the length of the (school) day and the length of the (school) year,” and the union “want(ed) to make sure we were focusing on students and teachers,” she said.

She added the filing was a means of applying “just a slight little pressure” on the district’s negotiating team, which is led by Chief of Policy and Operations Steve Liss and Employee Relations Director Maria Mason.

Nordgren said the process was put on hold after a meeting with Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and members of the district negotiating team. School district spokesman Stan Alleyne confirmed the meeting.

“I hope that this is just following the standard operation procedure,” Alleyne said. “It’s not uncommon for unions to at least get the process going. But we are pleased that we continue to agree that we can continue this round of negotiations in a public manner.”

Tilsen said state mediators were brought into union-district talks during the last two rounds of negotiations for contracts that expired in 2007 and 2009. It’s not unusual for state mediators to join talks between school districts and teacher unions, either; Tilsen estimated there were around 60 open petitions for mediation in such talks currently.

The union and district already employ a professional facilitator who leads the discussion during contract talks between district and union leaders.

“Typically, we try not to go into mediation until most of the issues are settled and they get down to the harder … issues,” Tilsen said.

Lynnell Mickelsen, co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a parent group advocating for contract reform, said bringing in a mediator would contradict district and union pledges to make contract negotiations an open and public process. Mickelsen was one of a few people who regularly sat in on negotiating sessions at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers headquarters in Northeast.

In an e-mail, Mickelsen wrote: “Both the MFT and the district continually call for more family and community involvement — why wouldn’t citizen observers be a part of this?”

Asked to respond, Nordgren said Put Kids First Minneapolis “don’t necessarily speak for the public.”

“I don’t think Put Kids First is the public; they’re a group of people from the public,” she said.

“The School Board represents the public from all over the city and that’s who we’re at the table with, via the (district) administration,” she added later.

Alleyne said the district remained committed to “open and transparent” negotiations.

Both sides have agreed to speak publicly about details of the talks only in joint statements. The district maintains a page on its website dedicated to the negotiations, and Alleyne said another update was expected “any day now.”