New union contract causes controversy among teachers

Frances Matecjek, A&E Editor

On March 28th, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) approved a new contract agreement, and the school board followed suit on April 8th. The agreement, plagued with controversy, would bring about a series of changes both big and small.  Most controversially the agreement creates an expedited process for firing teachers and allows the district to create new Community Partnership Schools. The contract also addresses issues such as class size targets, to policies about leaves of absences and reviews of special education teacher caseloads.

This settlement makes very few changes to the core teachers contract, but instead adds Memoranda of Agreement, or MOAs, which are amendments to the contract. These MOAs would add on to a contract made for Minneapolis Public Schools teachers, in order to ensure fair working conditions for teachers. It extends from regulations of salaries, to class sizes, to standardized testing and beyond. This contract is added to, tweaked, and reformed every two years, through negotiations between the school district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Contracts are incredibly important, not only for teachers, but for students as well. As freshman social studies teacher Robert Panning-Miller put it, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and if teachers are under greater levels of stress, students are going to feel it”.

Teachers and administrators alike are already predicting the changes, some good, some bad, that the contract will bring about.

The new contract had several fierce advocates, including union president Lynn Nordgren. “This contract begins to address things that have been problematic for a long time: class sizes, special ed, testing, workload and planning time for teachers, hiring teachers earlier for hard to fill jobs, etc,” said Nordgren.

“We have finally gotten the district to acknowledge that these issues need improvement, and to start doing something about it” she added.

One of the most controversial of the series of proposed MOAs is the resolution to establish Community Partnership Schools.
“MPS Community Partnership Schools will have opportunities to take advantage of flexibilities from the District policies and procedures or specific items within the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement,” reads the MOA.

In other words, these schools would be given a degree of flexibility on curriculum design, standardized assessments, and other regulations imposed upon schools by the district.  And they would be able to depart from the teachers contract in the areas of instructional time and length of school day and year.

The changes that schools would make are wide and varied. “Some schools want more social emotional support for students. Many want to cut back on all the testing to have more time for learning. Some want to bring more art back into their school,” explained union president Lynn Nordgren.

Nordgren is confident that Community Partnership Schools are “the strategy to close the opportunity gaps and reach equity for all students.”

“Schools are supposed to also work with families, community and students to see what they think might be good ways to improve their school. This gives schools more freedom to be creative and have more ownership over their schools,” she explained.

Plans for the schools would be reviewed and approved by a proposed Community Partnership Schools Advisory committee, the Superintendent, and the Board of Education.

“‘Just let me teach’ is a rallying cry heard from teachers across the country. We believe Community Partnership Schools can be an answer to this cry and begin to address what works and what doesn’t in each of our respective schools rather than a one size fits all solution,” reads a statement issued by the Executive Board of the union aimed at persuading teachers to vote yes on the tentative contract agreement.

According to Nordgren and other supporters, the overall goal of the Community Partnership Schools seems to be to give teachers, families, and the community a more direct access to students’ education, by making schools accessible and collaborative.

However, some teachers do not see it that way. These teachers have a variety of concerns about the issue. Among these concerns is the worry that teachers will not have enough say in the establishment and running of Community Partnership Schools.
A group of 31 Minneapolis Public Schools teachers wrote a document campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, in which they write that the contract is “a license to undermine union solidarity.” It further elaborates that while the contract does list a requirement for staff support before a school could become a Community Partnership School, “There is no specific language about what that buy-in has to look like or how much buy-in there has to be…. conceivably only a few teachers could support the change to CPS and it could be counted as ‘staff buy-in.’”

Additionally, teachers opposing the contract do not see the Community Partnership Schools as putting power in the hands of the teachers, but instead in those of the administrators, because it is up to the District to create “the measures by which a CPS will be judged as a success or failure. This puts a great deal of power in the hands of the District to judge a school as failing,” states the “vote no” document.

South teacher Jim Barnhill added that a lot of the language within the document is very unclear. “It’s all a big experiment. How are they going to measure those successes? What will they do if they don’t succeed?” he questioned.

Many teachers are concerned that without specific and clear language, the district will be able to abuse its power, and teachers’ concerns will not be addressed.

Barnhill said, “The overarching issue of the contract is trust. Can we trust Minneapolis Public Schools?” He went on to explain a big concern held by many teachers is whether or not Minneapolis Public Schools will continue to communicate with teachers about Community Partnership Schools and other issues. “The first place for them to show that trust is how they handle new schools: will they automatically make new schools Partnership schools or will they seek the staff buy-in?” he explained.

Nordgren reiterated this belief. “The big barrier for a lot of teachers is trust…it is critical that the district keep its word so trust can be rebuilt”.

Many teachers are on edge about another MOA as well, which addresses PSPs, or the Professional Support Process. This process is generally used to provide support for teachers who are struggling in the classroom, as well as a process for firing teachers. This contract’s addition of an expedited PSP, or a shortened amount of time for improvement, is a concern for some teachers. “Will management abuse this new process or use it sparingly? That’s a trust issue”, said Barnhill.

Above all, Panning- Miller said, one of the largest problems with the new contract is its unspecific language. “What is talked about and what is in writing is the difference. What’s actually in writing is mostly troubling, because it’s vague, it’s unclear, it opens the door to a rigid, abusive structure. What’s talked about is very different. It’s hopeful, it’s optimistic.” he said.

However, he emphasized,  “you don’t write a contract with wishes and hopes. You put specific language in there that calls for what you need, otherwise it does a disservice for everyone involved.”

The school board voted to ratify the contract on Tuesday, April 8th. “On behalf of the board, we are truly gratified by the teachers’ decision. This new agreement empowers teachers to play stronger leadership roles in achieving better results for students,” School Board member Richard Mammen commented on the contract in a statement issued on March 29th.

Plans have not yet been made to establish any Community Partnership Schools, and both parties are waiting to see what the district will do. Above all, Nordgren believes “it is critical that the district keep its word so trust can be rebuilt.”