Amid Concerns, Minneapolis Teachers and School District Agree on Two-Year Contract

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The Minneapolis School District and the Teacher’s Federation last week settled on a new two-year contract that slightly increased teacher pay and put a moratorium on the controversial practice of teacher realignment. But according to some on the school board, the new contract falls short of meeting minority student needs.

According to Emma Hixson, Minneapolis School District Director of Employee Relations, the new contract gives teachers a 2 percent pay increase for the next two years and offers a modest increase in family health insurance.

The most contentious issue, however, brought to the bargaining table during negations dealt with layoffs. Beginning in 2003, budget cuts and decreasing student numbers forced the school district to layoff a substantial number of teachers. As a result, the district had to decide which teachers to layoff first and where to place the remaining educators. It was at this point when the concept of ‘teacher realignment’ was introduced to Minneapolitans.

Hixson explained that the realignment process was born out of a state Supreme Court ruling regarding teacher layoffs in the late eighties. Realignment then became the way in which both senior teachers and those in key subject areas were retained.

Hixson explained, “If you have an elementary teacher who has also a special ed license but she’s teaching elementary, you move her out into special ed, where we have more vacancies and less senior teachers.”

The practice of realignment was controversial to residents and district employees not only because experienced teachers were being relocated to new schools, but also because many were being put into subject areas in which they had no previous experience. As part of their continuing education, many teachers acquire secondary licensures in much needed areas, such as special education. In turn, because of low seniority and high turnover rates in the special education area, 107 senior teachers found themselves realigned into special ed teaching positions in 2004. Many of these educators had spent their decades-long careers teaching band or math, but not a single day teaching special ed students.

This sparked serious public outcry from parents. But parents were not the only ones taking issue with realignment. A group of 27 teachers took the district to court to contest their professional reassignments. As a result, the district convinced the state legislature to adjust seniority rules and has now agreed to a one-year freeze on this practice in the new contract.

But basing layoffs on seniority alone has consequences all its own. Many minority teachers have less seniority and, as a result, face increased layoffs. Additionally, minority-majority schools have fewer senior educators in general, and in turn, are greatly affected by the layoffs.

The district and the federation were able to come to an agreement that addresses part of this problem.

“What we did was carve out some out some areas where exemptions could be made and try to protect some specific programs,” Hixson said. “The English Language Learning and Native Language Learning programs…the Montessori programs, some of the special ed programs. Those were areas where we were able to reach agreement that we should look at something besides seniority in the staffing of those sites.”

Minneapolis school board member Sharon Henry-Blythe, however, told the Star Tribune that she was frustrated that not enough was being done in the contract to address the educational equity issues facing poor and minority students. Namely, being taught by inexperienced teachers at far greater rates.

Hixson suggested that the place to address the effects of teacher layoffs is elsewhere.

“This is not an issue for the teachers contracts nearly so much as it is an issue of legislative and societal priorities about education,” Hixson said. “It’s the fact that we have to layoff teachers that causes the problem.”

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