Minneapolis Public Schools leaders have requested that contract negotiations with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers move into mediation.
Mediation involves a neutral third party working privately with the district and the union to more efficiently resolve issues and settle the contract, Superintendent Ed Graff wrote in a letter to district employees.
The district’s most recent contract with the union expired June 30, but state law keeps former contracts in place until they are replaced. However, Graff said the district’s teachers deserve to know the terms under which they are working and that mediation can make that happen faster. He added that the district’s projected budget deficit of $33 million for 2018-19 was another factor in deciding on mediation.
The president of the teachers union, Michelle Wiese, was critical of the decision in public comments to the School Board on Nov. 14. Flanked by six union members holding signs, Wiese said she thought it was no surprise that district leaders filed for mediation immediately after a negotiation session attended by over 100 parents, educators, community members and the press.
“Filing for mediation is a clear signal that your administration does not want to engage in open and public discussions around the issues that matter most to families and students,” she said.
Wiese noted the union’s 10-point bargaining platform, which includes items such as smaller class sizes, restorative practices and $15 an hour for all MPS employees. She said the School Board and union need to work together to “preserve this district,” given the current political climate.
“It is you, our publicly elected School Board directors, who will be held accountable for the outcome of these negations by our parents and community,” she said.
The union’s tactics appeared to draw the ire of School Board Member Don Samuels. After public comments, he explained the give-and-take process of negotiations, which includes the sides putting forth and discussing proposals. But he was critical of what he saw as “chiding” by the union, noting the School Board doesn’t respond to criticisms during public comments.
“The public sees this chiding taking place, public lashing taking place, assumes that this silence from our part, it means that we have no answer and we are guilty of something,” Samuels said. “It creates a public communication problem, which is why the signs were held up, so that pictures could be taken for the press.”
Samuels added that the School Board won’t negotiate at its meetings and said the “other side being done” is inconsistent with the “goodwill with which we sit at the table to negotiate.”
“If there was an equal exchange, that would have been fair,” he said, “but this is clearly using a strategy that fits within our agreed upon political rules but does not fit in the spirit of negotiation with which we sit in a room to talk to each other.”
Board chair Rebecca Gagnon said she appreciated the frustration but didn’t feel like she was being chastised. She noted that the union called for mediation in 2013 and said the board would like to see this year’s negotiations wrap up as quickly as possible.
She added that the district went into mediation because it only had about 25 percent of needed feedback from the union, noting the union has limited meeting times to Tuesdays.
“We really felt like it was in the best interest of our teachers and district, given our financial status, that we move negotiations forward,” Gagnon said.
Two days after that board meeting, on Nov. 16, the district announced two cost-saving measures to take effect immediately: hiring restrictions and new travel guidelines.
Hiring is restricted for central office positions not directly serving students, regardless of the funding source. It does not apply to vacant positions that directly serve students.
Out-of-district travel for all employees will be reduce to an “absolute minimum,” according to a district media release. Some mandatory travel will continue, but in those cases, the district is asking for strict adherence to the minimum requirements necessary to maintain such compliance.
In his letter about mediation, Graff said the district had begun to explore limiting hiring for open positions and is discussing the possibility of eliminating two days of school, which could save up to $1 million on salaries alone. He added that long-term budget decisions on items such as transportation, for example, must ensure that revenues and expenses match.
The district also needs to increase revenue in years to come, Graff said. At the Nov. 14 board meeting, he said the district is exploring launching a referendum campaign to put on the ballot for November 2018 that would be payable for the 2019-20 school year.
The district has about $18 million that it could go back to voters for in addition to the current referendum, Graff said. It also could go for a capital projects levy, which about 21 other metro-area districts have, he said.
The district is also looking at other ways it could save money through efforts such as realigning bell times and other actions. Graff noted a list of expenditures the district has prioritized in past years that could be modified, though he added that the list is not exhaustive.
That list included class-size ratios, seven-period days in middle schools and high schools, transportation and an extended calendar, among other items.
Graff said district leaders would bring forward specific recommendations for addressing the projected 2018-19 budget deficit in the coming months.
The board on Nov. 14 also passed the district’s 2018 legislative agenda, which calls for funding the special education cross subsidy. That’s the amount of general fund revenue the district uses to support special education.
It’s a cost the state and federal governments are supposed to support, especially as they put more requirements on districts, according to a district spokesman. The government once promised full reimbursement for special education services but has never reimbursed more than 40 percent of the cost, according to a district budget video.
The district’s total special education budget is about $120 million, according to Budget Director Tammy Fredrickson. MPS projects that it will use about $50.7 million of general fund revenue for special education services during the 2016-17 school year.
The general fund is the district’s primary operating fund and is used to pay for salaries, supplies and transportation, among other services.
About 6,200 MPS students, or 17.6 percent, receive special education services, according to district budget documents. School Board Member Nelson Inz said that it essentially means the district doesn’t receive funding for 40 percent of students who qualify for special education services.
“We can’t call enough attention to that and what an injustice that is those students and for people that are in this district,” he said.