The conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota is calling on Gov. Mark Dayton to propose a change in state public employee labor law to require that mediated talks be open.

The foundation stated: "The minutiae of collective bargaining negotiations may seem unlikely to provide riveting drama, but the stakes are very high for parents, students, taxpayers, and the public education system."

The matter hasn't been on Dayton's radar and it currently doesn't have a position on the issue, said Bob Hume, Dayton's deputy chief of staff. Prospects for such a proposal would appear doubtful in a DFL-controlled Legislature. State mediators have closed mediation sessions since at least 1984, according to Josh Tilsen, the state commissioner of mediation services. 

The foundation's proposal to the governor follows the closing of the Minneapolis teacher talks in October after the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers requested the assistance of a state mediator.

The state's Public Employment Labor Relation Act requires that labor contract negotiations for public employees be held in public, except that mediated sessions may be closed at the discretion of the mediation commissioner. The bureau supplies mediators to try to help employers and the unions representing their workers to reach agreement in reaching contracts or resolving grievances.

The bureau's policy under governors of three parties has been to close public employer negotiations after the entry of a mediator. Tilsen said he feels that makes it easier to reach agreement because there is less posturing to the public. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson criticized the union's mediation request after about a dozen public face-to-face sessions with district negotiators. Federation President Lynn Nordgren said she believes that a mediator helps both sides make progress faster.

But foundation Vice President Jonathan Blake calls that argument condescending and said that under the same rationale, all negotiations would be closed.

The closure of negotiations has frustrated those who style themselves school reformers, who want to be able to follow district proposals to change the teacher contract, and minority advocates who want to see changes aimed at reducing the racial achievement gap. They argue that the union wants to be outside public srutiny when it resists district proposals for contract changes.

The district is proposing to create new partnership schools, where there's more teacher leadership and more flexibility in exchange for accountability. It also wants to be able to fill openings earlier to hire the best outside candidates, and to offer incentives to teachers to go to and remain at low-performing schools, where teachers often have less experience.

(Photo: Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.)