Under rising pressure to improve student performance, Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is pursuing a path that bluntly warns the powerful union representing district teachers that the status quo they know needs to change quickly.

Johnson, near the end of her first term, doesn’t want to make teachers the villains in the district’s flagging academic performance. But she has laid out the argument that the working conditions they’ve long had by contract need to change if the district is to move ahead.

She portrays those changes — such as school-level hiring and more leadership roles for teachers — as liberating. But they also depend on teachers yielding some long-cherished rights such as seniority in hiring and layoffs. Johnson hopes to sweeten that with incentives for choosing tough schools and jobs like special education.

Johnson presented her vision in a mid-May speech to a specially invited, mostly non-schools audience at the downtown Minneapolis library in a way that goes far beyond the normal table-setting rhetoric for a round of teacher contract bargaining.

“It probably is a defining moment,” said Alberto Monserrate, chair of the school board that helped Johnson set her negotiating goals. He and others said her key message was that the district is aware of the urgency to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students and improve high school graduation rates.

All eyes on schools

Although that gap has long been discussed within the district, the spotlight shone by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law prompted the broader community to take heed. That spawned a cottage industry of those labeling themselves as school reformers, drowning scorn from some teacher activists who regard them as latecomers at best and shills for corporatization of schools at worst. Those reformers often labeled teacher union work rules as the chief impediment.

Board members are getting an earful. “Just about every public official I know that doesn’t oversee schools … they’re all hearing about schools,” Monserrate said.

Johnson’s speech weeks before her first three-year term ends signals that she’s tried the key levers she controls as superintendent, such as starting to evaluate teachers, standardizing more curriculum and strengthening the principal corps, and found them insufficient by themselves. Now she’s seeking structural changes, such as more district say over the hiring and retention of teachers and cutting state testing requirements, that she’ll have to negotiate with union representatives and the state. That will test her persuasive skills, and influence whether she’ll become the first superintendent in a generation positioned to stay beyond six years.

Both sides are girding for the upcoming round of teacher talks, which begin later this year with the contract expiring June 30. The district has retained a public relations firm; the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers plans a letter-writing campaign in the local press and close to 200 in-home meetings to enlist parents and other community members to get behind its negotiating agenda.

‘She has a vision’

That could make Johnson’s negotiating task harder. “She has a vision and she wants the larger community to get that,” said Pam Costain, a former board chair. “This is her attempt to name what some of the impediments are.”

The federation’s response in a statement applauded what it agreed with in Johnson’s speech: hiring more teachers of color, hiring new teachers earlier to be more competitive, developing a grow-your-own program to help students or paraprofessionals train for hard-to-fill teaching specialties, giving teachers more time to plan together, and working with parents and the community.

It also said Johnson needs to go further in shrinking classes, cutting testing, giving teachers lesson-planning time, intervening with students to reduce suspensions, meeting their health and social needs, and offering more culturally relevant curriculum.

The federation stopped short of saying where it disagreed with Johnson. One key issue is likely to be her proposal to control the hiring and retaining of teachers who the district feels best fit the needs of a school. The union has granted limited exceptions to seniority rules for specialty programs but has resisted giving the district the broader exemption it seeks.

The district seeks those powers in particular for its worst-performing schools, where it wants longer workdays and school years that mimic such high-performing charter groups as Hiawatha Academies and Harvest Prep. Selected schools would have the option under Johnson’s proposal to junk a variety of district practices, but she also wants accompanying modification of the teacher contract in negotiations that begin later this year. Such schools would be governed by performance contracts, much like the four charter and one self-governed school that the district supervises.

Common ground?

Johnson asked for partnership with teachers in her speech, while Monserrate said that there’s enough evidence from elsewhere, such as New Haven, Conn., that school boards and teachers can find common ground on contract issues.

If student performance isn’t sufficient motive, public reaction is reinforcing the call for urgency. That’s why Johnson needed to acknowledge the public frustration and signal she gets the urgency, said Chris Stewart, a former board member and now executive director of the American American Leadership Forum, whose education working group in 2011 detailed a gap-closing plan.

Forum representatives met with board members earlier this year to advocate something much like Johnson’s proposal to trade operating freedom to schools for accountability for results. “Obviously, we’re very excited,” Stewart said.

Sampling those who attended Johnson’s speech afterward, he added, “To a one, everybody that I asked had a sense that something profound had just been said.”