Tag Archives: Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

Minneapolis Teachers Union Pushes for Smaller Classes, Less Testing–and $15 Minimum Wage

November 22, 2017

Last night, the best seat in town for education advocates was a folding chair inside the squat, workaday headquarters of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. It’s negotiation season for the union, and the stakes are high.

On one side of the table sat a handful of Minneapolis Public School administrators, including Chief Human Resources Officer Maggie Sullivan and Michael Thomas, the district’s second in command behind Superintendent Ed Graff. Sullivan, Thomas and the other MPS admin remained silent during the negotiations. Instead, labor and employment lawyer Kevin Rupp did the talking.

The district reps might have felt outnumbered. In a sharp departure from past union-district negotiations, MFT members packed the florescent-lit room with a sea of union blue t-shirts, alongside a smattering of community observers. Pro-labor posters, constructed at a recent “Art Build for Public Education” event, lined the yellow walls of the negotiations room, showing that MFT, under new leader Michelle Wiese, is working to embrace social justice unionism

Economic hard times pose a sustained threat to hopes for improvement in the social welfare. Savage inequalities in the public education available to children of different racial and class backgrounds reflect growing social and economic polarization and squander the potential of our youth. Gaps between schools and the communities they serve are widening. The price of continued decay in public education and social well-being will be paid in reduced prospects for a democratic future.

–Rethinking Schools: “Social Justice Unionism,” Fall 1994

Negotiations–always a tense display of political theater–have become strained, thanks to the school district’s recent request for mediation. Moving to mediation means the public will be shut out of future sessions, although the district has agreed to meet publicly through 2017 (negotiations will be held on December 5 and 19 at MFT headquarters in northeast Minneapolis).

Requests for mediation are not new. In 2013, it was MFT that asked to close negotiations to the public, under former longtime president Lynn Nordgren’s leadership. This sparked a protest by education reform outfits such as Students for Education Reform and their allies from the now-dormant Put Kids First group.

It may have been easier back then to declare the union an old school, obstructionist mess, although that narrative has always been driven in large part by the anti-labor forces attempting to decimate workers’ rights across the United States. CNN Money, of all places, recently took a look at what Wisconsin teachers are facing in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s Koch and ALEC-fed actions.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not just about teacher pay and benefits; the destruction of unions in Wisconsin is pushing teachers and professors out of the state, and diminishing prospects for students. This example is worth keeping in mind amid ongoing calls to bring more people of color into teaching. What kind of jobs will they be offered?

At MFT last night, the union and district gnashed teeth over several union proposals. One striking call, led by Andersen United Community School teacher, Kristen Melby, was for clean schools. Fifteen years ago, Melby said, the Minneapolis schools had five hundred building engineers; today, there are less than two hundred and fifty. There are fewer students now, too, but protests in recent years have focused on the lack of cleanliness and care at MPS sites like Andersen.

Further MFT proposals dealt with special education caseloads and paid time off for teachers who must fill out onerous piles of paperwork associated with providing special education services. The district took a break midway through the negotiations, to confer, caucus and prepare their rebuttals. The district then responded to previous union proposals, most notably around class size and standardized testing.

Speaking for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Rupp said the district would refuse to negotiate around either of these issues. The union had previously proposed that the district mandate only the minimum amount of testing required by the state, arguing that any additional standardized testing pushed on the schools is costly–in terms of technology, labor, and lost hours of teaching and learning. (Schools often have to close their computer labs for weeks or months at a time, for example, to accommodate testing demands, and they have to pay someone to act as testing coordinator.)

In explaining MPS’s refusal to discuss testing, Rupp cited Minnesota’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act which he said puts questions of “educational policy within the School District’s sole authority.” Rupp also said that this law “protects democratic representational government,” by allowing elected school boards to make policy decisions. 

District administrators ponder MFT proposals

This struck me as a curious argument, since the school board is often criticized for being too involved in district operations. Some board members, past and current, have also repeatedly maintained that their only role is to hold the Superintendent–the board’s one employee–responsible for his or her own policy and hiring decisions. The board is not supposed to make policy, right?

Allowing teachers a greater say in what happens in the classroom, including how students are assessed, is an oft-repeated goal of both social justice unionism and education reform groups, who often insist that top-down management of school districts is a big problem. Also, as union leaders pointed out last night, MPS has been toeing the testing line since No Child Left Behind, yet little, if anything, has changed in terms of student outcomes (according to standardized test scores).

Is it time to “rethink assessment”? If so, who should lead this work? Teachers or administrators? School board members? 

The district also refused to discuss class size, claiming not only that the district is solely in charge of this, but that negotiating smaller class sizes would cost MPS upwards of $37 million per year. Impossible, Rudd claimed, in light of the $33 million budget shortfall MPS is wrestling with.

The dire financial straits facing MPS are real, and Graff and the school board have publicly addressed them. According to the November 14 school board meeting, raising class sizes by one student per classroom across the district, while also bringing the smaller classes at high priority schools up to district averages, is on the table. This is heartbreaking, especially in a wealthy state like Minnesota.

The district may not be willing or able to move on topics like class size and testing right now, although there are legitimate questions about who will most likely bear the brunt of the upcoming budget squeeze (a squeeze brought about, in part, by previous district admin and their expensive reform plans). Still, the sight of one hundred or more teachers, social workers, school librarians and support staff joining together to push for smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and more time to devote to their students is a hopeful one.

To be fair, the November school board meeting also offered many intriguing clues about MPS leadership. It is to be expected that the district and union would be at loggerheads during negotiations, but, in watching video coverage of the November meeting, I see signs of progress from within MPS.

FIrst, uncomfortable and damaging budget realities are being openly discussed in new ways. The Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, must pay the special education costs for students who attend charter or private schools outside of the district. They must pay these costs but retain zero control over the quality or level of service the students receive, thanks to state law.

Also, the Minneapolis Public Schools faces millions in cross-subsidy costs for the special education and English Language services it must provide (and should provide, of course). This means that, although the state requires the district to provide such services, it does not provide enough funding to cover the cost. Therefore, MPS has to take money–to the tune of $56 million for special education alone, in 2016-2017–from each student’s per pupil funds to pay for the services they are required by law to provide.

While the general fund is being asked to pick up a greater and greater share of non-general-fund expenditures, the general fund itself has lost considerable ground to inflation. If the base education funding formula had simply kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would be over $600 per pupil higher today.

2016 Star Tribune editorial by Rebecca Gagnon, John Vento and Bruce Richardson of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Charter and private schools, as I said, can bill their special education costs back to the district. Charter schools only pay ten percent of the cost themselves. This is a problem the legislature needs to address–quickly, especially as the Minneapolis schools face increasing competition from charter schools that promise better outcomes for students but perhaps do not pay their share of costs for these “better outcomes.” 

The union-district negotiations will move behind closed doors in January 2018. That’s a shame, because the conversations embedded within them are worth paying attention to. The union is pushing for many things, including a living wage for all district employees, since MPS remains exempt from the move to a citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour. These efforts will hopefully go a long way towards shifting the narrative around public education from failure to solutions.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

–Rachel Cohen, “Teacher Unions are Bargaining for the Common Good.” American Prospect, June 2016

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Top Down Change in Minneapolis, Part 2: When they look up, it will all be in place

Minneapolis’ Nellie Stone Johnson school, a high poverty K-8 site in north Minneapolis, was named after a pioneering African-American woman who had a “long and distinguished record of public service in support of the advancement of minority concerns.” Johnson was in fact a labor activist and the first “Black person elected to citywide office” in Minneapolis. 

But, will the school named after her survive a bout of “autonomy”?

On Tuesday, April 14, the Minneapolis school board will vote on whether or not to allow Nellie Stone Johnson (NSJ) school to become one of four “autonomous” district schools in the city. This is being pushed forward under the Community Partnership Schools (CPS)  concept, which the district and the Minneapolis teachers union agreed to embrace during 2014 contract negotiations. (The CPS model is intended to pair district schools with outside partners, as the schools are given more “freedom” in how they structure their days and hire staff members, etc.) 

In the fall of 2014, Nellie Stone Johnson school had a new principal and a mostly new staff, after a few years of leadership change and the loss of some experienced teachers. The school also had a new relationship with a nearby community organization called the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), which is run by Sondra Samuels, wife of current Minneapolis school board member Don Samuels. NAZ won a federal “Promise Neighborhood” grant in 2011, worth $28 million. (It is important to note that this five-year grant is set to expire in 2016, or before the three-year “trial” period would be up for NSJ’s experiment with autonomy, should it become a CPS site.)

All of this “newness” is making it harder to document the community’s involvement in the push to turn Nellie Stone Johnson into a “partnership” school, which would further connect it to its proposed partner, NAZ. If this goes through, NAZ’s “scholar coaches” would be placed in classrooms throughout the school, as support staff.

In fact, behind the scenes and under the cover of anonymity–which seems to be the only way to puncture the “Come on get happy!” promise of these partnership schools–employees with inside knowledge of Nellie Stone Johnson are speaking out and raising questions.

Yesterday, I published a post that included excerpts from a NSJ staff member, who has sent an emailed list of concerns to school board members. The email included this blunt statement:

“This movement was forced from the district down. From a Union meeting I attended at NSJ, it should have come from the community up. It did not.”

These assertions are backed up by recent conversations I have had with other people from the school, including another employee who isn’t satisfied with the plan to “autonomize” NSJ:

  • People at NSJ “don’t seem to understand the concept” of the Community Partnership School model
  • The presentation to families about converting to a CPS site was “not professional” or thorough, and included leading questions, such as: “Do you want your children to go to a better school?”
  • The budget for next year is uncertain for NSJ, as it will depend on how many students actually show up at the school (because of MPS’ requirement that all CPS sites also pilot a new “student-based” funding model).
  • “A lot of positions at the school have been cut,” and people were told it was due to seniority. But, this employee is suspicious of that because of the proposed partnership with NAZ and their “scholar coaches,” who will be paid half of what the district pays associate educators to work at the school. 
  • The whole NAZ connection is worrisome. The organization’s presence at Nellie Stone Johnson has been growing since last year, leading to the impression that the “whole partnership thing has been in the works for a while.” Still, this employee maintains, “Nobody can explain what NAZ’s role is in the building.”
  • Another concern: there is no engaged, informed parent body at Nellie Stone Johnson (the principal herself made this clear at a fall 2014 staff meeting, when she introduced the CPS model). “Parents don’t really know” what CPS is about. This employee’s fear? “When they look up, everything’s going to be in place, and they (parents) won’t have a say in it.”
  • Final question on this employee’s mind: “Is CPS a pretty package with an empty box inside?”

The tricky thing is, if NSJ becomes a partnership school, it won’t really have autonomy, as in, independence. Instead, it will be bound to the same accelerated, test-based “accountability” guidelines laid out by the district’s new strategic plan, Accelerate 2020. (I believe this is what former MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson used to call “bonded autonomy.”)

Nagging questions: What happens if Nellie Stone Johnson becomes a Community Partnership School but can’t meet the “accelerated” pressure from MPS to boost student test scores? What are the consequences of “failing” at autonomy? 

Reflection time: Why might MPS be pursuing this? Is it because Minneapolis became a “portfolio district” back in 2010, under the guidance of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE)? The CRPE was started by Paul Hill, and is built around a market-based reform model of school choice (autonomous, independent schools as far as the eye can see).

Here is a video of Hill describing the portfolio district concept, in which he states, among other things, that “diversity is a problem that districts have to solve in new ways,” that the purpose of schools is to serve the economy, and that “collective bargaining agreements further constrain schools.” It also says that districts should be “seekers of the best schools for children, no matter who runs them” (This starts with “flexibility” in hiring practices, and requests for deviation from the union contract–kind of odd for a school named after a labor activist….)

Inline image 1This is the language of the market-based, privatization movement for public schools (privatization=independent, non-public entities managing public schools and public money). And this is the guiding light and structural framework for the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Community Partnership School model. 

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

(Side note: The union may have signed off on this for a variety of reasons, including a documented preference for alternative school models, such as the “Site-Governed Schools” concept it helped bring to MPS in 2009. To date, however, there has been only one site-governed school in Minneapolis, Pierre Bottineau French Immersion. This school will cease to operate as an independent school this fall, after just a few rocky years in existence.)

Danger! More autonomy straight ahead

Today I got a notice from Pinterest in my email. It’s tagline goes like this: “Boring living room? How to liven things up.” 

Immediately, it struck me as an apt parallel to the attempt to introduce “Community Partnership Schools” into the Minneapolis Public Schools. (I am imagining a behind-closed-doors PowerPoint pitch that went something like this: “Boring public school system? How to liven things up with autonomous schools!”)

The PR promise of the school district’s community partnership plans drips from the MPS website–“Community Partnership Schools are collaborative, innovative, site-based, educational models that meet the unique needs of their students, accelerate learning, and prepare them for college and careers”–but will it be able to deliver on this promise?

The concept for this new model of public school was cemented during 2014 negotiations between MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. The idea was that school communities could choose to become “partnership” schools, and become more autonomous, in exchange for “greater accountability.” 

These schools are supposed to be designed with lots of community input (meaning actual parents, teachers, maybe even some students) and fresh ideas (just like the Pinterest email) for how a newly liberated, autonomous school will be able to quickly boost student achievement.

That mostly means test scores, in the parlance of MPS’ new strategic plan, Acceleration 2020 (buckle up, kids), which is calling for all schools–autonomous or not–to produce large gains in student test scores:

  • 5% annual increase in number of students meeting or exceeding state standards on standardized reading & math tests
  • 8% annual increase in the number of “low performers” who meet or exceed state standards in reading and math

So, the district sets the overall standardized test-based targets for each school (this may be the “bonded” part of autonomous schools that former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson used to talk about), and the Community Partnership Schools get to…innovate on their way to achieving those goals, while other schools do not? I am not entirely clear on the promise and premise of this new way to jazz things up in MPS, or why a school would have to become “autonomous” just to do what it thinks is best for its students and staff.

How does one “unlock innovation”?

Also, MPS already has an “autonomous” school model in place, which the teachers’ union brought to the table, back in 2009-2010, after getting legislation passed allowing for “Site-Governed Schools.” The language surrounding the purpose of Site-Governed Schools is almost exactly the same as that being used now for Community Partnership Schools, and focuses on greater “flexibility” for these schools in several areas, such as how budgets are spent, what curriculum models are used, and who works at the schools. 

Since the Site-Governed Schools law went into effect more than five years ago, MPS has–or had, rather–just one such school: Pierre Bottineau French Academy (the school will no longer exist next year, as I understand it, and will instead be absorbed into Cityview Elementary School). The story of Pierre Bottineau, which started with the glow of community-led innovation, is a troubling one, and calls into question MPS’ ability to carry out such autonomous schools that have been “freed” from district-created shackles. (I did a whole series about Pierre Bottineau for the Twin Cities Daily Planet last year; the articles can be found here.)

MPS’ “Office of New Schools” was originally tasked with running the Site-Governed Schools and bringing greater autonomy, as well as market-driven choice and competition, into the district, under the guidance of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (MPS–like Memphis and New Orleans–is one of the Center for Reinventing Public Ed’s “portfolio districts).

In fact, the Office of New Schools was created within MPS when the last strategic plan–written by McKinsey and Company consultants back in 2007–promised to bring accelerated success and greater flexibility and freedom to the district. Since then, the Office of New Schools has had at least five directors–most of which have had a charter school background but little else in the way of public education experience. Today, it is being run by 2009 Rice University graduate Betsy Ohrn, who is a TFA alum and now serves on the board of directors at Venture Academy (a “blended learning” charter school in Minneapolis) with Jon Bacal, who was the first director of the Office of New Schools.

These days, the Office of New Schools has been tasked with implementing MPS” latest push to bring “innovation” into the district, as it has been overseeing the Community Partnership Schools application process. So far, the first round of contenders for this more autonomous (I must remember to get that word accurately defined) school model are:

  • Ramsey Middle School (which, by the school’s own admission, already enjoys a fair amount of autonomy)
  • Bancroft Elementary School (which would like to go further in its mission to become an IB school)
  • Folwell Arts Magnet (also would like to go further with its magnet school mission)
  • Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School, which is currently a K-8 school in north Minneapolis, but will become a K-5 next year.

All four of these schools–should the Minneapolis school board allow them to become partnership schools at the board’s April 14 meeting–will also be expected to pilot MPS’ new, more autonomous and decentralized funding model, called “Student-Based Allocations.” (This topic requires its own separate blog post). Why should they have to become Community Partnership Schools and try out a new funding model at the same time? Good question.

Ironically, or perhaps, forebodingly, the Office of New Schools was rated MPS’ least effective department by district principals very recently. Just 22% of MPS principals–who are slated to become the “entrepreneurial” leaders of their schools, as the district tries to become more decentralized–identified the Office of New Schools as satisfactory; in contrast, the English Language Learner department was considered the most useful, according to 79% of principals.

If the Office of New Schools could not effectively manage the one site-governed, autonomous school it has authorized, and today’s principals do not consider it an effective department, how will it handle implementing the Community Partnership School model?

And how will any of this serve the district’s most vulnerable students and schools, who are perhaps in need of more support and less autonomy?

Could it be…?