Proposed teachers contract raises Mpls. in-class time a bit

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2012 - 9:54 PM

Teachers' votes on proposed two-year contract to be counted Friday.

Minneapolis teachers will have more time to prepare, but students will see only a little more class time under a new teachers contract headed for a vote this month.

The two-year proposed contract is projected to cost the district $17.1 million, largely financed by reserves or non-classroom cuts. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers will count teacher ballots Friday, and if the pact passes as expected, the school board votes four days later.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is telling parents that more time for teaching, preparing lessons and monitoring student progress sets the table for gains in student progress -- when combined with better teacher evaluations and instructional training that the district is unrolling. School board Chairman Alberto Monserrate said completing negotiations with far less rancor than the last teachers contract will pay dividends in implementing those initiatives.

But skeptics who have pushed for more sweeping contract changes are disappointed. They argue that Minneapolis Federation of Teachers successfully stalled more sweeping changes.

"It's just mush on every level," said Lynnell Mickelsen, one outspoken critic. She's one of a group that wanted the district to push for hiring, firing and assigning teachers based on how much their students progress, for open hiring pools, quicker removal of subpar teachers and big gains in how much time students spend in class.

The proposal does lengthen the student year by four days, but hardly the one-third gain the self-styled reformers espouse.

The contract grants no cost-of-living increase -- the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers didn't even seek one given the clamp on state aid that all districts face. But the contract still will raise district costs by about 6.4 percent. That's mainly due to an extra $8.9 million the district will pay to lengthen the teaching year by four days and the non-teaching time the teacher is required to spend in school by an average of 15 minutes daily. That adds $3,090 to a typical teacher paycheck next year. Many teachers also will get raises for gains in experience and training.

Teachers negotiated for a number of changes they said will clear away distractions that hamper their ability to focus on improving lessons and monitoring how well students progress.

But the larger debate is whether contract changes are enough to prompt the gains in student achievement and narrowing of the racial achievement gap that are prompting outcries at the State Capitol for sweeping changes in how teachers are evaluated and retained.

The reform group last fall got parents and policymakers to sign a Contract for Student Achievement to put pressure on a school board it saw as too cozy with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, but it got little of the change it sought.

Cost was an issue. The district is having to dip into reserves just to pay the $8.9 million bill for the four extra teaching days and a longer duty day.

"Ideally, we would have liked to see more days. ... Fiscally, it's probably as far as we could go and be financially responsible," Monseratte said.

There's also the issue of how hard to press teachers. A previous board played hardball, pushing for changes in how teachers are assigned and trying to withhold experience and training raises that normally are not at issue. Teachers went to arbitration to win those raises and the fight left hard feelings among teachers.

Nate Gunderson, a federation organizer who participated in this round of negotiations, said they were marked by a problem-solving approach. "I did not feel that they came in gunning for teachers," he said.

That's a contrast from the atmosphere at the State Capitol, where teachers feel under attack from a Republican majority that argues that changes are needed in teacher-district relationships. Chief among them are loosening the role of seniority in teacher layoffs, so that younger teachers who post a track record of better student gains aren't sacrificed to protect teachers with lackluster student growth, and a proposal to have the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis appoint school boards.

Yet the board runs the risk that too soft a stance in negotiations could hurt its public standing. Some already feel that the labor-dominated DFL endorsement process that usually determines who is elected produces a board that's putting the needs of adults ahead of students. That view was reinforced when four incoming board members in late 2010 signed a letter scolding the current board for taking too hard a line in labor negotiations.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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