What's at stake: Tenure and seniority in Minneapolis schools

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“Tenure doesn’t mean you can’t ever be let go,” Minneapolis Teachers Federation President Lynn Nordgren says. “What it means is that if a principal says we are going to let you go, you have a due process — you have a right to understanding what it is that — why this is happening. Tenure allows things like all the “isms” — ageism, racism, sexism — that have been a part of our world for a long time to be taken out. There has to be an educationally sound reason, with a hearing and a due process. That's what that’s about.”

What's at stake: Minneapolis teacher contracts and beyond is a TC Daily Planet series looking at the 2011-2012 teacher contract negotiations in Minneapolis Public Schools. The first articles in the series focus on the contract process and participants, tenure and seniority, evaluation and discipline, and "high-priority" schools.

A teacher achieves tenure after working for the district for three years, and having undergone the rigorous “Achievement of Tenure Process,” according to the 2009-2011 contract. Once a teacher achieves tenure, they have greater job security under Minnesota Teacher Tenure Act- MS. 122A.41, which states that tenured teachers “shall continue in service and hold their respective position during good behavior and efficient and competent service and must not be discharged or demoted except for cause after a hearing.” Many teachers quit before a tenure decision is made — national studies show high rates of leaving teaching during the first years.

A teacher’s seniority is based on how long they have worked for the district. Although in recent years there have been numerous changes to how teachers are hired (which is now not completely based on seniority) layoffs generally are in seniority order, according to Costain, although there are some exceptions.

The Contract for Student Achievement includes what many see as an attack on tenure and seniority. Two of its main points include allowing schools to hire non-tenured teachers, even if tenured teachers with appropriate licensure are waiting for a job. The CSA website says:

Last year, 74 teachers were forcibly placed in Minneapolis schools even when the site leadership teams did not believe these teachers were an appropriate fit for their school or students---at a cost of $6.4 million in benefits and wages. Under our current contract, all tenured teachers are guaranteed a job if there are any openings that fit their licensure--even if no one wants them.

This must stop.

What the Contract for Student Achievement letter does not acknowledge, Steve Liss, Chief of Operations and Policy at MPS, says, is how much progress has been made in the last two rounds of bargaining in terms of “getting the right balance.” The process is evolutionary, he says.

In the old (pre-2009) system, if there were vacancies, teachers could just bid in vacancies based on seniority for teachers under the same license. There would be interviews only if there was a reason not to take the most senior teacher, Liss said.

Seth Kirk, a parent who is a part of the Put Kids First group, attended the negotiation session for the 2009-2011, in part because of what happened at the Montessori school that his child attended. Despite district-wide layoffs, Armatage Elementary, a Montessori school, had an open position, and the person assigned to the position did not have Montessori credentials.

The contract that ended in July 2011 stipulated that specialty teachers licensed in autism, Montessori, Immersion, and Native Heritage language literacy programs were exempt from “district-wide layoff outside seniority order."   

In the last four years, the district and union have agreed upon an interview and select process, where if a teacher wants a position that’s open, they can put in a request for that position, and a team of teachers and principals interview 10 candidates. “Not only in the first round, but in the second and final placement, teachers have to interview to get a job,” Liss said.  

Nordgren says that schools can hire who they want from the pool of Minneapolis teachers.  “Teachers can apply for a position that would open up,” she says. “Maybe they just want a change of place.  I changed every five years because I wanted the variety.”  Or, teachers may lose their job because of downsizing in a building. On the Northside, there’s been downsizing because of the foreclosure crisis, and then the tornado crisis. “All of these things that are detrimental to families make the schools become smaller. Population went down, and that eliminated positions at a site.

“If you have a position that’s open, up to 10 people can apply within the district. The school gets to hire whoever they want. They don’t have to pick any of those ten.”

Nordgren says that “anyone with a teaching license can apply to our school district… they can apply and be a part of a pool of teachers to draw from.”  

Teferi Fufa, an elementary school teacher at Marcy Open calls foul on the assertions made by CSA supporters. “They are totally ignorant or totally ignore the reason why tenure laws came into effect,” he said. “They say you don’t need to represent yourself because there are rules in place and you don’t need union protection. That’s not true historically.”

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    Sheila Regan's picture
    Sheila Regan

    Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.