Minneapolis school board on hot seat in contract talks

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 9:59 PM

Minneapolis teachers and reform groups are competing for attention and votes of board members.

Alberto Monserrate was coasting to election on the Minneapolis school board last fall when Lynn Nordgren, president of the city's teachers union, called to question his support for Put Kids First Minneapolis.

Monserrate had signed his name to a petition backing the school reform organization.

"Are you clear about what you signed? Because we feel it's anti-union, anti-teacher," Nordgren recalled telling Monserrate. "We feel like it's not the right agenda."

Monserrate changed his mind and had his name scrubbed from the petition.

Months later, he was one of four members-elect who signed a letter on teachers union letterhead. He later said he regretted that decision, too.

Now, with the Minneapolis school district in the midst of teacher contract negotiations, Monserrate and the other school board members find themselves in a similar spot this year: caught between the competing agendas of an influential union and an alliance, led by Put Kids First, pushing for education reform.

Put Kids First's Contract for Student Achievement calls for longer work days for teachers in struggling schools, an end to basing hiring and firing decisions on seniority, and teacher evaluations that factor in student performance.

Like-minded efforts have cropped up in urban school districts nationwide, from Boston to Los Angeles, with one difference. Elsewhere, the reform groups and unions have pledged to work together.

With the teachers union pursuing its own reform agenda, similar cooperation is not likely here.

Last week, the Minneapolis teachers union became the nation's first to be authorized to sponsor public charter schools. The 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers provided financial support for the campaign.

"We're going to guarantee that these schools are high quality," Nordgren said. "We're on a mission to make sure the teaching profession keeps improving."

Put Kids First co-chair Lynnell Mickelsen and other supporters argue that leaving teachers in charge hasn't worked, especially for Minneapolis' poor and nonwhite students. The proposal would offer "systemwide change as opposed to change at one small building," Mickelsen said.

Nordgren counters that the contract reform effort ignores two crucial factors that influence student performance: adequate early childhood education and parent involvement, neither of which can be negotiated in a contract.

During last year's negotiations, Monserrate and three other newly elected board members -- Jenny Arneson, Rebecca Gagnon and Richard Mammen -- signed a letter on union letterhead, before they took office, urging the sitting school board to resolve the contract.

"I've learned a lot since then about the board's role in negotiations," Mammen said. "I respect the process and work that [Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson] have mutually agreed to pursue."

As teachers continue to work under a contract that expired in July, district administrators and union leaders have declined to discuss their shared goals. Negotiations on the new deal, which would cover this school year and next, are expected to wrap up by mid-January.

After Mickelsen and others presented school board members with copies of the Contract for Student Achievement in November, Nordgren told her members she contacted individual school board members to discuss the proposal.

Monserrate and Lydia Lee and Hussein Samatar said they weren't among them. Mammen and Gagnon said they had contact with Nordgren but had not discussed contact negotiations. Arneson, board chair Jill Davis and Carla Bates did not respond to a question about speaking with Nordgren.

Monserrate said he took his name off the 2010 petition supporting Put Kids First because he "wasn't in complete agreement with everything they stood for." Several Put Kids First members still endorsed his campaign.

When it comes to the board's final vote on the teacher contract, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers will wield no more influence than any other group, Monserrate said.

"I haven't seen an unusual or disproportionate influence [from the union]," he said. "I don't think MFT is going to have influence over board members."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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