Union tentatively agrees to longer school year

Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers union emerged from one of the most-scrutinized negotiating sessions in memory with an agreement to extend the school year by four days, with pay for teachers.

The tentative 2011­–2013 teachers contract announced in late March would add an extra $3,090 to each licensed teachers’ annual take-home pay in recognition of the longer year and an increase in the official workweek to 40 hours from 38.75 hours. It was one of the more significant outcomes of a process Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren described as “creative” and “collaborative.”

“We’re happy with the result,” Nordgren said. “We feel that it was a collaborative process and that we really tried to stay focused on students and how to improve education for all of them.”

Other results of the negotiating session include reduced class-size targets for district’s lowest-performing schools and an agreement to give teachers two uninterrupted 45-minute blocks for preparation and planning each week. A union vote to ratify the contract concludes April 13, after which the School Board will hold its own vote.

For some reform-minded observers the contract doesn’t go nearly far enough in making the kind of changes that will have a significant impact on the district’s nagging achievement gap. Lynnell Mickelsen of Put Kids First Minneapolis — a group whose Contract for Student Achievement advocates significant changes in the way teachers are hired, fired, placed in schools and evaluated — called the tentative agreement “pretty much mush.”

“If you have a kid in a school that’s failing, this document gives you no cause for confidence,” Mickelsen said.

In a certain sense, though, district-union talks didn’t end in March. In addition to the proposed contract, the negotiations produced no less than seven memoranda of agreement, some establishing district-union taskforces to continue talks on issues like teacher health care plans, further extension of the school day or year and managing teacher workload.

School Board Chair Alberto Monserrate said that’s not a bad thing.

“I actually like that philosophy,” Monserrate said. “I think in the past we’ve put way too much in the contract.”

Pushing for more

To Chris Stewart, a former School Board member who signed on to the Contract for Student Achievement, the results of the Minneapolis contract negotiations signaled a lack of leadership.

“This is a plan to have a plan,” Stewart said, referring to the multiple task forces that will continue to discuss key issues.

Stewart, like Mickelsen, regularly observed contract talks at the Minneapolis Federation of Teacher’s headquarters in Northeast until February, when the union’s request for a state mediator closed negotiations to the public. Up until then, he said, district negotiators were pushing for both a longer school day and school year for the 16 “high-priority schools” — so-called because they are the lowest performers in the district.

“They didn’t get that,” he noted.

Monserrate said a more significant increase in the school day or school year, and an accompanying increase in teacher pay, was “financially impossible” without more school funding.

“I think, frankly, this was as good as we could do and also be fiscally responsible,” he said.

Stewart held up the New Haven, Conn., school district as a model of pragmatic reform. There, the district and union agreed in 2010 to a reform package that includes teacher evaluations tied to student performance on standardized tests and a tiered school system that gives individual schools more autonomy if they are performing well and less if students post low test scores or fail to graduate on time.

Last summer, that district’s teacher union president testified about the reform efforts before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, which was chaired by Rep. John Kline, Republican from Minnesota’s 2nd District.

“They’re going against the grain of the national trends,” Stewart said of the union and district in Minneapolis. “The national trends are for people to see the urgency.”

Monserrate disagreed, and emphasized the need for cooperation between the board, district leadership and the union.

“I will not apologize for taking a collaborative approach,” he said. 

Incremental change

A district press release described the proposed 2011–2013 teachers contract as bringing “positive momentum” to changes in its lowest performing schools.

“Change has to be managed incrementally at a realistic pace to produce sustainable results,” the press release continued.

Nordgren said she agreed with the statement.

“Sometimes you can do a quick change, but if you haven’t thought things through a really good idea can fall apart because you don’t have the structures in place,” she said.

Nordgren said the attention focused on this round of contract talks, much of it from Put Kids First Minneapolis and its allies, made it difficult for negotiators to “think out loud” and brainstorm during their sessions. Often in the past few months, the debates held inside the conference room at union headquarters spilled out onto newspaper editorial pages.

“I felt it did have an effect, and there was a lot of mis- and disinformation shared,” Nordgren said.

Mickelsen and Stewart agreed that, while they didn’t achieve their goals for the negotiations, they did succeed in bringing more attention to the critical issues addressed in the contract.

“We should never have another School Board election where candidates are able to make it all the way to the board without having to answer the tough questions about the teachers contract,” Stewart said.

“We welcome the attention,” Monserrate said. “We’re a public institution, supported by tax dollars. I’m actually excited that we got the attention we got.”