Minneapolis group challenges teacher tenure

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2011 - 11:22 PM

A coalition urges reform in contracts, but the union chief says the effort is "misguided."

A coalition of City Council members, former school leaders, parents and pastors are calling for Minneapolis public schools to end seniority-based hiring and firing practices in the next teachers union contract.

In its "Contract for Student Achievement" position paper, the group argues that past agreements between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) "repeatedly put the needs of adults over the academic needs of students."

"We call on the district and the MFT to negotiate a different kind of contract -- one that recognizes the academic crisis in our schools and makes student achievement the top focus," the coalition says in its letter, which was delivered to the school board this week.

Saying the letter "feels like an attack" on teachers, union president Lynn Nordgren disputed some of its findings and the argument that past contracts have halted reform.

"The group is well-intentioned, but their strategies are misguided," Nordgren said. "The teachers are the experts. For some reason, everybody else thinks they are the experts now."

Negotiations on the contract for the 2011-2013 school years began this fall. Teachers are now working under their previous pact, which expired in July.

Lynnell Mickelsen, co-founder of school reform organization Put Kids First Minneapolis, presented the letter to board members Tuesday night.

The Contract for Student Achievement coalition wants to base decisions on hiring, placement and layoffs on teacher evaluations, rather than seniority; end the practice of placing teachers in schools that wouldn't hire them; extend the school day in buildings where students struggle on state tests, and speed up the firing of ineffective teachers.

Among the 30 who have signed the letter is former school board chairwoman Catherine Shreves, who said that she saw poorly performing teachers removed from schools that had active parent involvement and dumped in schools that didn't.

Shreves likened the staff turnover to "The Dance of the Lemons," a term used in the film "Waiting for Superman" to describe how weak teachers are shuffled from building to building because no principal wants to keep them on staff.

"You can't look at the statistics and say what we're doing is working," Shreves said. "It's a very unfair system, a system that needs reform."

Prior contract agreements have chipped away at the system that gives longer-tenured teachers priority in school assignments. The "interview-and-select" process developed in 2008 gives principals and other staff more latitude in deciding who works alongside them. The Minneapolis district has not undertaken a study to determine whether student performance has improved under the program, said David Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the district.

Shreves doubts that much more reform will happen under the current school board.

In December, before they took office, newly elected board members Jenny Arneson, Rebecca Gagnon, Richard Mammen and Alberto Monserrate signed a letter on Minneapolis Federation of Teachers letterhead, scolding the last board for its handling of contract negotiations with the teachers union. They later apologized for the action.

School board chairwoman Jill Davis said she hasn't had time to review the letter. Group members said they submitted the letter to board members because they, not district administrators, approve the teacher contracts.

Nordgren, the union leader, described the group's action as "a distraction. It takes us away from the real things we need to be focused on. ... Our city needs a good, solid school system."

Over the past 12 years, Nord- gren said, the union and district have worked together to terminate hundreds of teachers who weren't fit for the profession and provide support and mentors for another 1,000 struggling instructors.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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