Board Chairman Alberto Monserrate

Board Chairman Alberto Monserrate

When the Minneapolis school board approved a new teacher contract in a tumultuous meeting in April, board chairman Alberto Monserrate challenged vocal critics of the contract.

"There are discussions that we've had in private that after this vote today will be public," Monserrate said.  "I encourage people to find out what was really discussed at these meetings, instead of assuming, instead of accusing."

But that's easier said than done since the board is keeping the recordings private.

Monserrate was referring to the board's private meetings to discuss labor negotiations. They are an exception to the state's open meeting law that allows boards an opportunity to discuss labor strategy without unions or the general public listening.

That law also requires that such meetings be recorded.  Those recordings must be available to the public "after all labor contracts are signed by the governing body for the current budget period." 

But when two separate requests were made for the recording that Monserrate said would be made public, the board refused to make them available.

"I didn't mean that we were going to be releasing them public tomorrow," Monserrate now says, when asked why they wouldn't be released.  "There definitely is an interest to make it happen as soon as possible."

The board is clearly within its legal rights to withhold the recordings because it hasn't settled all of its labor contracts.  Four labor unions and the district have not reached agreement on contracts covering the current budget year, which ends on June 30.  Indeed, the board still hasn't released tapes of its discussions for labor contracts covering the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years because it hasn't reached agreement with the union  representing janitors and bus attendants, nearly three years after their contract expired in mid-2009.

The Star Tribune on April 21 made a written request to Monserrate and board members that the recordings covering teacher negotiatons be released. Seth Kirk, a district parent who has become a lay expert on teacher placement practices, made the same request.

Last week, the board said no.  District General Counsel Steve Liss said that revealing the content of discussions on negotiating strategy with teachers could give away information on issues such as health care cost-sharing that might help remaining unions.

Yet there ae also compelling reasons for releasing the tapes.

First, this round of teacher contract talks attracted more public scrutiny than perhaps any since the 1970 teacher strike. That's largely due to the efforts of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a group that last fall launched a public push for contract changes that it argued would help student achievement.  Its leaders have argued that instead of a two-party negotiation, the teacher contract talks should be a three-party conversation at which the community is represented.  The reform lobby monitored and blogged about negotiating sessions until the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers triggered state mediation, which closed the talks.

Second, Monserrate himself made the case in his April 17 comments before the board vote that an information vaccum breeds rumors.  He also asserted an argument that so far the public has been unable to check. "This board pushed," he said.  "There's a reason why this negotiation took longer than people expected, and that was because of the board," he said.

Third, board members other than Monserrate shook their fingers at some critics for questioning the board's commitment to student-centered changes in the teacher contract. Some of those same board members have repeatedly claimed that their posture in negotiations wasn't compromised by their 2010 post-election signing of a statement on teacher union letterhead in which they pledged a more cooperative stance toward teacher negotiations.  Some activists welcomed that; others considered it a sellout.  Either way, absent the recordings, interested citizens have no way to judge for themselves.     

Fourth, the school board has approved the district's strategic plan, in which it pledged itself to the twin values of transparency and accountability. In a new era of school accountability, the state and district have mandated evaluations of teachers and principals. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has mandated evaluations of district administrators. As Monserrate noted, we have a school board election coming up, which is the primary means for citizens to hold the board accountable. Two board members will be seeking another term. So far the public has no information on what their stance was in giving direction to district negotiators on a contract that represents one of the board;'s major policy issues.   

The Star Tribune asked Kirk, one of the few people willing to slog through hours and hours or recordings from the 2007-2009 round of bargaining, what he learned.  "It was very revealing about the process, about who was advocating for what," he said.  One thing he came away from those recordings with was a sense of how timid the district's negotiating team was compared to the board that gave it marching orders--a board with almost entirely different cast of members than the current board.

"It shows the connection of our elected representations on the board to the process," he said.

Monserrate said last week that he's optimistic that progress is picking up on finishing the remaining contracts, and that recordings could be released before the election.

Time will tell.