District, teachers announce tentative contract

Minneapolis Public Schools and its teachers union announced a tentative contract agreement March 1.

The agreement came at the end of three consecutive days of talks, according to a joint statement from the district and the Minneapolis Federation Teachers. The two sides began negotiating a 2013–2015 contract in June, but the process was closed to outside observers in mid-November when a state mediator joined the talks.

No details on the terms of the labor contract were released immediately. They’ll be made public once contract language is finalized and shared with union membership.

At the outset of negotiations, the district’s stated goals included changes to staffing rules that would allow sites to retain top talent and create incentives for hard-to-fill positions, expanded instructional time and placing 20–30 percent of the most struggling schools in a “partnership zone.” Partnership schools would be granted greater autonomy but also held to high standards for improving student achievement.

Union priorities included expanded access to early childhood, more opportunities for student enrichment and play, reduced class sizes and more time for planning and professional development.

A vote on the new contract is expected in mid-April. It must be approved by both the union and the School Board. 

Minneapolis adjusts integration aid spending

Aiming to focus resources on proven programs, the School Board approved changes March 11 in how its spends state integration funds.

James Burroughs, executive director of the district’s Office of Equity and Diversity, said the changes shift funding to programs that have been shown to boost student academic performance. The changes reflect a statewide shift in the use of the funds; while they are still used to combat segregation, there is an increased emphasis on closing the achievement gap.

AVID, or Achievement Via Individual Determination, a college-readiness program, will get a budget boost of $1.5 million to more than $3.5 million for the 2014–2015 school year. The program will expand to 23 school sites next year from 21 this year, reaching an estimated 2,800 students, 950 more than this year.

The district reports more than 10,000 students have participated in AVID. They have better attendance and higher graduation rates than their peers, and over 90 percent go on to college.

A program intended to keep students on-track for graduation, Check and Connect, will see a 45-percent budget increase in 2015 to $1 million. The program will reach an additional 545 students by expanding to all of the district’s middle schools and an additional five K–8 school sites.

District surveys have shown strong support for Check and Connect among both students and staff. Compared to peers with similar backgrounds, the students who participate are 10-percent more likely to graduate and 22-percent less likely to drop out.

The district also plans to more than double its budget for Expanded Choice Options to $189,000. The original aim of the program was to increase diversity at three high-performing Southwest schools — Southwest, Lake Harriet and Burroughs — by opening enrollment to students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch who live outside the schools’ attendance areas.

Burroughs, who plans to release an evaluation of the program in late March, said Expanded Choice Options succeeded in increasing diversity at those Southwest schools, but the participating students generally did no better academically. The adjusted budget builds in additional academic supports for the students by adding parent liaisons and tutors. It will also add seats for another 175 students.

Minneapolis’ Urban Debate League is among several academic programs getting additional support with the funding shifts, as well. Students who participate generally earn better grades, Burroughs said.

He said the additional dollars will support the district’s launch of Somali- and Spanish-language debate programs, too.

Kitchen upgrades included in capital renewal budget

The two-year, $114-million capital renewal plan approved March 11 by the School Board reflected some of the dramatic changes taking place in its Nutrition Services department.

The plan included scheduled kitchen upgrades at 26 school sites over the next two years, most of them budgeted at about $1.5 million. And “upgrades,” in this case, might be an understatement.

“They’re actually putting a kitchen back into a school site,” said Mark Bollinger, the district’s chief administrative officer.

For years, almost all Minneapolis school meals were prepared in a central facility and then trucked to schools. The rudimentary kitchens at school sites did little more than heat food to serving temperature, Bollinger said.

The change was initiated by Betrand Weber, the district’s director of culinary and nutrition services, who has also pushed to add more fresh produce and locally produced foods to school lunch menus. In March, Education Week magazine named Weber one of its 2014 Leaders to Learn From.