America’s federal government is partly shut down because Washington politicians can’t work out a way to pay the nation’s bills and keep places like the Grand Canyon and the National Zoo open. As a result, 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed and aren’t getting paid.
A similar inability to negotiate and come to agreement has plagued the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians and board for more than a year now. That impasse threatens to shut down one of the state’s premier (and internationally acclaimed) cultural institutions.
And now two of Minnesota’s largest school districts and their teachers are having trouble coming to terms on new two-year contracts. Negotiations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been sent to state mediation. In each case, one side requested mediation because it believed the talks had hit a wall.
Because of state policy, a mediator’s involvement closes such talks to the public and the press. That’s unfortunate; the public should be able to observe what happens in negotiations between those who teach their children and the administration that manages tax dollars to make education possible. Sunlight on talks is especially crucial for districts like those in the two core cities, which both suffer significant achievement gaps between white students and some students of color.
Big changes are needed to address learning disparities. Business as usual is not working for too many students. Contractual changes may be necessary to meet the needs of highly challenged kids.
In Minneapolis, for example, some charter schools that have done well with lower-income students of color often have more flexibility in their agreements with teachers. Some have longer school days and school years and are less bound by seniority rules in making staffing decisions.
In a speech earlier this year, Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson laid out a position that has become known as “the shift.’’ She called for more flexibility in the union contract and in district rules for some schools that would bear more accountability for results in exchange for more autonomy. Her plans involved more teaching time, more freedom in hiring and new possibilities for great teachers to become leaders and pass on their successful methods to their colleagues. Meanwhile, the union response called for smaller classes, more services to meet the needs of students, less testing, more teacher planning time and more culturally relevant lessons.
Both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Federations of Teachers are seeking less testing, arguing that excessive “teaching to the test’’ takes away valuable time from learning and critical thinking. They may have a point when districts go overboard on testing. In some cases, steps should be taken to reduce the number of exams and settle on fewer that better evaluate student learning.
But in St. Paul, teacher union leaders included opting out of state tests on their list of negotiating points. It’s an unreasonable request, because those assessments must be administered under state law. Union leaders said they also want the contract to spell out how many support staff should be assigned to each building.
Too many restrictions on these kinds of decisions, which are managerial in nature and don’t belong in a collective-bargaining agreement, were made part of the talks. So both districts went to mediation before they got down to brass tacks on matters like salary and benefits.
Ultimately, the state’s commissioner of the Bureau of Mediation Services can decide whether a mediation session should be open or closed. However, under the department’s policy, those meetings are always closed, agency officials say, to give both sides the chance to freely exchange ideas, including through private discussions with mediators.
But if neither side has anything to hide, there should be a return to the negotiation table, where the public can watch the process unfold.