Minneapolis teachers raise questions about new contract

Provisions for a Community Partnership Schools and an expedited termination process raise questions for some teachers preparing to vote on a new Minneapolis Public School contract. After eight months of negotiation, district and teachers union representatives agreed on a new contract, which was presented to Minneapolis teachers on March 10. Teachers have a week to review the contract details before voting begins on March 17.

Minneapolis teacher Jim Thomas said a one-week turnaround is not enough time to adequately review the contract before voting on it. While Thomas acknowledged that this short time frame is not new, he is frustrated that the first union-held information session about the contract will be held on March 17, the same day voting begins.

A Special Education teacher with twenty-five years of experience, Thomas says he has had informal discussions with fellow teachers this week, and that he would like to see more healthy debate among them before they sign off on the contract. For Thomas, there are several aspects of the contract that need to be more clearly explained and discussed before members cast their votes.

Community Partnership Schools

The contract provides for a new “Community Partnership Schools” (CPS) initiative, as part of Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s “Shift” proposal for schools with more “autonomy”  and more “accountability.”  The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that accompanies the partnership school provision states that these schools will be able to “take advantage of flexibilities” from district policies and procedures, and the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, in order to “achieve results” for their students.


More on the contract 

The MPS contract is complicated, and news reports vary somewhat in their descriptions and discussions. Here are two more reports:

Teacher contract could change how schools run (Steve Brandt, Star Tribune)

MPS deal looks like a win-win: Everybody gives, everybody gets (Beth Hawkins, MinnPost)

The contract itself is attached to this article as a PDF (contract plus MOAs from MFT website)


Thomas is concerned that the details and guidelines surrounding these partnership schools are too vague, and that teachers are being asked to sign off on something that has not been fully explained or defined. Anishinabe Academy science teacher Shannon Edberg shares Thomas’s concern about the partnership school proposal.

Edberg, who is part of a slate of candidates challenging union president Lynn Nordgren and the union’s Executive Board in this spring’s election, said in an interview that she is concerned about adding a new “partnership school” concept to the previous union and district push for both self-governed and autonomous schools. Edberg questions “how many tiers” the union contract will have. Different tiers mean that teachers’ working conditions will vary depending on which type of school they are working in.

Edberg also questions another aspect of the partnership schools MOA: the proposed flexibility to get rid of district mandates such as Focused Instruction. The district has been implementing Focused Instruction and a push for greater uniformity of instruction for approximately two years now, and Superintendent Johnson has previously called the further district-wide implementation of it “non-negotiable.”

Why, Edberg asked, will only these partnership schools be allowed the flexibility to do away with Focused Instruction? Edberg notes that her students at Anishinabe are being dramatically impacted by poverty, drug abuse, and other complex issues. She says she would also like the flexibility to use the tools she finds most helpful.

Expedited Termination Process

Edberg and Thomas both raised questions about another aspect of the contract: the creation of an “Expedited PSP Process.” A "PSP" is a "professional support plan," designed to handle situations where teachers are struggling, according to union president Nordgren. PSPs have been used to identify, support, and possibly fire teachers for seventeen years now, and Nordgren says the removal process previously took six to nine months.

The timeline for this expedited process is forty-five days, during which a principal-selected teacher would be given a “triage” evaluation, a plan of action to be met, and a series of progress reports and “support sessions.” If the results of these interventions are not satisfactory, a teacher could then be “referred for outplacement.” The MOA does not clearly explain what conditions, except for the mention of “data-supported evidence,” would qualify a teacher for this process. Should the contract be voted in, this faster track for dismissals or transfers could be used for tenured and non-tenured teachers, in every district school.

The MOA for the expedited process indicates that it is a “deviation from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the District and the Union.” The MOA then says that this agreement will mean that it will not “form the basis for any precedent for any grievance concerning any alleged violation” of the contract, which seems to indicate teachers will not have the opportunity to challenge their removal.

For Thomas and Edberg, this feels like an “easy path to get rid of teachers,” and Edberg asked why such a policy is needed in the first place. There is a process in place, she noted, that principals are now supposed to be following if they have teachers who need support or are not performing adequately. If there are bad teachers who need removal, Edberg wonders whether principals currently are not doing their jobs.

Teachers will begin voting on the contract on March 17, and will have until March 28 to cast their vote. 

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  • I think it's important to point out that Shannon Edberg is not just running on a slate of candidates for union office. She is currently the secretary of the union. The entire union leadership is not united in favor of this tentative agreement. - by Corinth Matera on Fri, 03/14/2014 - 7:53pm
  • So Lynn why so very much disagreement over this proposed contract ? Is it an indication that many are not pleased with the current direction of Local59 leadrship and it's workings with MSP administration ? Are discussions not public between members, administration and union leadership ? Does/is the local representing teachers take on what the needs are for learning which seemed to be the case in St Paul ? Are teachers feeling bamboozled, left out of the discussion ? These are intellifgent people speaking out what is the reason they seem to feel ignored ? As to instant teacher removal how does that create a collaborative community ? Seems to work against it and encourage people looking over their shoulders rather then educating ! The bottom line is that it seems to be part of an ongoing power grab in the Minneapolis Public Schools moving away from community and to managemment. - by Joe Musich on Fri, 03/14/2014 - 10:12pm
  • Shannon Edberg does not work in a partnership school. The teachers in her school work under the current contract. The proposed partnership schools are supposedly based on the model schools in Cincinnati, but the MOA is given a description of schools which are far removed from those schools. Those schools serve as a community hub with health clinics, education resources, strong community agency partnerships, mental health resources, and strong parental involvement. Parents come in to access resources, volunteer, and engage with their students. The building remains active with community programming long after the day has ended for the students. The students in these schools have made steady gains because of their basic needs being met and the level of community and parental involvement. There is not even a fully vetted outline which has been created to actually fill in the blanks to describe what this looks like in MPS. This MOA is piecemealed together with hopes and dreams. If teachers ratify this, then they will lose protection of the union contract besides salary and medical. Teachers will put themselves in the position of being bamboozled based on a half thought out vision which can change once they sign on the dotted line. I am all for wrap around services, community engagement, parental involvement, etc. in all schools that serve our neediest students. We should negotiate for the dismantling of FI because it is still not equitable or culturally relevant. We should negotiate schools with the neediest students receiving full wrap around services, a parent/community council, and after school educational programming which includes all if the students and families - by Teach Shannon on Mon, 03/17/2014 - 3:38pm
  • This is another in a series of contracts that makes concessions on work rules, which have generally not been very egregious. But this contract is designed to help the district implement changes in working conditions advocated by some school board members and the Superintendent as part of the SHIFT agenda. MFT member are being asked to give the Superintendent a blank check to alter or eliminate union protections for teachers in "Community Partnership Schools." A memorandum of agreement between the district and the union is not needed for Community Partnership Schools if teachers conditions of employment in those schools are to be no different than conditions of employment of other teachers in the district's employ. The MFT local 59 membership is being asked to approve terms of the MOA sight unseen. I have a feeling that if this contract is approved, many who vote for it will soon regret having done so. - by Doug Mann for School Board 2014 on Mon, 03/17/2014 - 4:43pm
  • Hey Lynn If it is a glass 1/2 full issue then what is the reason soo many,many people are unhappy with this potential contract which I guess is my same question ? - by Joe Musich on Sat, 03/15/2014 - 9:52pm
  • Thanks, Joe. The union leadership voted 11-3 after 4 1/2 hours of review and discussion of the tentative agreement and MOAs to pass them onto the members with a recommendation to vote yes. As a negotiations team, we would not have put forward anything we thought was bad - we would have stayed at the table - and did for 9 1/2 months. We have heard from many members that they like the agreement. There are a few pockets of protest and there will be opportunities for members to say what they think at 14 member sessions. The vote will tell us in the end what the members want and that is why members will have 3 weeks to review everything and come to an information session. During the past 6 years, MFT has had more focus groups, more member participation, more committees run by members, more rallies, more surveys, more gatherings and more discussions than in any other time during our union history. I have done hundreds of site visits as well. MFT has also included the parents and community in our work - creating partnerships and unity to support students and what is best for them. Our reputations as a union is growing in positive ways. During this time, MFT created a student and teacher centered focus (new world view narrative, goals and strategies) through which all of our work has been filtered. In addition, we have fought for what is good for students and fair to teachers at the capitol during legislative sessions and around the city in debates, panel discussions and more. We even fought and won a decisive state arbitration over the District on behalf of members so that their steps and lanes remain in place and so no other district will again be able to freeze salaries outside of negotiations. Just to name one of many MFT victories in the past 6 years. Every one of our proposals at the table was good for teacher and for students and taken from what we have been hearing from stewards and members via many channels (described above). Smaller class sizes, weighted and smaller caseloads, reduced student assessments, less paperwork and fewer meeting so there is more time for planning good lessons, more voice in what is going on in our schools, freedom from all district policies (except those required by law) are things teachers have said they want and need. (There is not the same freedom from all union policies.) There is no "instant firing" happening - just emergency intervention and support - only for severe situations. This will be about intense support. Teacher mentors not principals will be determining who will be in the process and overseeing it as will a labor management committee so lots of safety values have been built in. The District wanted hire and fire at will - this is a far cry from that. Our contract will still protect people from unfair dealings and due process will be served. And, teachers will not necessarily be let go - they can be transferred is the situation deems this should happen. This MOA has an expiration date in two years if there is any abuse - it will not be renewed. The District knows they have to play nice on this. One could also look at this contract as the MFT having a power grab. The District came with 153 items - most of which are not in the agreement. We debated vigorously and stood up for students, teachers and schools. We persevered. But, we also knew that we would get more through collaboration. If we end up like Congress (which has the lowest approval rating of any affiliation, organization, group, etc., in the country), we will get nothing done. The great majority of our members want collaboration and they tell us so regularly. In the end, we have to work together to get things done for students. So, to that end, we finally have a way out of the heavy workload and the opportunity to bring back the arts, science, music, movement and more through the Community Partnership Schools. We will now work on the overload of assessments to streamline, align and reduce them. We have a commitment to fix the crowded classrooms with a first step in place to have 18 in all K-3 grade in struggling schools. The District said for the very first time that class size matter and that it is a problem! This means we can start to move ahead on it. We also kept seniority in place and brought in shorter leaves for teachers so they do not have to go out for a full year if a year is not needed. No more 90 minute PLCs!! (hear a roar on that one across the District!) An early ed Labor Management committee so early educators have a voice about what is best for their students. Paperwork support for special ed teachers. An audit of SPED and class size on a daily basis (used to be once a year) and a place for teachers to call when class size is an issue. More protected time for the beginning of the year set up which had been stripped from teachers before I arrived in this job. AND, this contract also has good stuff for students and that is where our advocacy for them as teachers comes through. We must take back advocacy for our students and get on the right path of learning. It has been off track for too many students and teachers for too long. We believe there is opportunity in this contract to start down that road. So, I guess it is about seeing the glass as half full or half empty. I see it as half full and will remain committed to filling it to the brim with what is best for students and teachers. I have committed 38 years of my life to that vision and do not plan to stop now. Best to you, Joe. Hope you are enjoying your retirement. Thanks for your great service to students throughout the years. - by Lynn Nordgren on Sat, 03/15/2014 - 6:42pm
  • It is good to see active engagement in the discussion around the tentative agreement. It helps us ensure everyone has clarity around the proposals. So, let me add some of that clarity: 1. There will be approximately three weeks total to review all of the material. Members received info on March 10 and have until March 28 before they have to vote. MFT will have 14 information and discussion sessions in between those dates and a TeleTown Hall conference. 2. Community Partnership Schools (CPS) are voluntary. CPS will allow teachers, families and the community to create the kinds of school they think works best for their students/children. Many of the contract provisions stay in place but will allow schools to be longer in day or year, if they so choose to do so. This additional time will be with pay for teachers. CPS also allows teachers to get out from under the overwhelming workload created by too many rules, mandates, laws, and initiatives. We often spend more time paying attention to these things rather than our students - which teachers do not like. They want time to plan their next day's work with students, to get in touch with parents, to collaborate with their peers to learn new things or figure our problems - not sit in meetings and/ fill out paperwork. Teachers will still be working hard as always in CPS but the work will be meaningful and purposeful AND they will have ownership over it along with others who create the CPS. The MOA will expire in two years if we do not like it which will put pressure on the District to make sure all is being done according to our agreement. And, there is an Oversight Committee made up of equal parts of labor and management. 3. The Professional Support Process is intended to do just that - be professional, provide support and be a process. Rather than hire and fire at will, this allows the teacher time to get focused, make improvements and be coached. Teaching is complicated and sometimes this is all that is needed to turn things around. Sometimes a teacher is not able or willing to within the 6-9 months usually provided. On a very rare occasion, there are emergency situations where we need to get in and do intensive support. A mentor is called to do a triage that includes observing and talking with the teacher, the principal and the teacher's team. If an expedited PSP is warranted, the teacher will have 45 days to improve WITH lots of support along the way. This is first about helping the teacher make needed improvements right away because things are deemed serious. The end result can be moving back to a regular PSP, being transferred to another site if the current site is not a good match (this sometimes is the issue) or being let go if the practice is not of high quality and students are being hurt. This is about taking responsibility for our profession and for student learning BUT it is also about making sure there is due process and support provided when an issue is serious. There is also a 2 year expiration date on this MOA if desired and there is a Labor Management Committee that will watch over this carefully to see that there is no abuse. MFT has long been nationally recognized as a progressive union that puts teachers and students first. We are not stopping now. A teacher's working conditions are also a student's learning conditions and we will fight each and every day to continuously improve each. To help move this agenda, the proposed tentative agreement brings forward a commitment to lower class sizes and special ed caseloads, a audit of all the testing that goes on to see what reductions can be made so there is more time for teaching, support for special ed teachers with their heavy paperwork load, and much more. Please visit www.mft59.org if you wish to see the rest of the agreements. Thanks for your time and thanks to the public and parents for believing in Minneapolis teachers - they are hard working, caring and very skilled - they want what is best for each student and put their hearts into making that happen every day. I am proud to be their president. Lynn Nordgren, President, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59 - by Lynn Nordgren on Fri, 03/14/2014 - 2:25pm
  • I'm confused. Edberg works at a "partnership" school but is against them for other students of color? - by Chris Stewart on Sun, 03/16/2014 - 6:03pm
  • Would someone from MFT or MPS please point me to a list of partnership schools? Thanks! - by Dan Peters on Sun, 03/16/2014 - 7:01pm

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Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm (sarah dot lahm at gmail dot com) is a writer, blogger, and former English Instructor, and has children in the Minneapolis Public Schools.