For Minneapolis schoolteachers, pondering where they'd like to work next year proved to be a far better option than walking off the job.

By more than a 2-1 margin, they ratified a new contract essentially giving principals more clout in selecting staff for their schools. The vote was 1,266 to 576, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers announced Tuesday. The school board later unanimously approved the deal.

"It was critical that we were able to do this," Superintendent Bill Green said.

After nine months of negotiating, the ratification spares the district from a nearly $1 million fine for missing Tuesday's state-imposed deadline. Teachers would get a 2 percent pay raise, retroactive to July 1, followed by a 1 percent raise and a one-time $750 bonus next year.

But the key change is the way teachers will be assigned to schools, starting this spring. Instead of the three-decades-old seniority system that gives more experienced teachers priority in school assignments, principals will have a larger role in that decision.

That change is essential to improving student achievement, especially in the district's schools struggling with poor performance and high teacher turnover, district officials said.

Many big districts across the state already have variations of the "interview-and-select" process, putting Minneapolis in line with others such as Anoka-Hennepin, Duluth, St. Paul, South Washington County and Eagan, said Roger Aronson, a Minneapolis attorney representing some 1,700 principals across Minnesota.

"It's going to hold principals more accountable for staff performance, instead of hearing them say, 'Well, you're going to have to talk to the folks over at 807 [Broadway, the district's headquarters],'" Aronson said. "It's a new day," he added.

Teachers at more than 40 Minneapolis schools, including many on the North Side and all high schools, Montessori schools and immersion schools, would be chosen through the new interviewing process next year. That authority will spread to other schools in 2009-10.

At each school, the principal, along with an administrator and at least two teachers, will form a committee for interviewing. The group will interview at least 10 teachers -- the five most senior and five others seen as qualified. The committee will seek consensus on new hires, but if members can't agree, the principal will have final say.

What teachers have to say

When Melissa Anderson, a first-grade teacher at Whittier Elementary, stood and told her peers that she favored interview and select at a contract meeting last week, she was booed and hissed. She hoped there was a silent majority.

There was.

"People are worried that principals will usurp the power and create a fiefdom. I have never seen it happen here. There are enough safety measures in place," Anderson said. Whittier already has a similar interview-and-select process.

"You hope in the end, when it's all said and done, it's a level playing field," said Michelle Hartwell, a first-grade teacher at Lyndale Elementary, who also voted for the deal.

Many teachers who voted no, however, believe that the process will promote favoritism instead of earned privileges.

"Seniority in our union has basically been gutted," Dan Balson, a social studies teacher at North High School, said Tuesday. "All this has is a hope, a hunch and maybe a prayer that it will close the achievement gap."

More than half of the 3,000-member union voted, said union president Robert Panning-Miller. The percentage who voted yes, however, was far lower than the 84 percent that approved the last contract in 2005, he said.

"The logic is that [interview and select] will improve student performance, raise test scores and close the gap, but I don't think it gets to the real problems," Panning-Miller said. "It still doesn't address class size, bring in more state aid, solve the flaws of No Child Left Behind, and certainly not the lives of our students outside of the classroom and what they bring with them every day."

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790