As deadline approaches, Minneapolis teachers call for fair contract

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More than 200 Minneapolis teachers marched in front of school district offices and then into the School Board meeting Tuesday, calling on the board to negotiate a fair contract.

The teachers also voiced concerns about a new strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools, which the School Board voted unanimously to adopt later in the evening.

“We are here with a very simple message,” said Rob Panning-Miller, president of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59, addressing the School Board. “The contract needs to be one that respects the experience we have here in Minneapolis and the quality of teaching. We are asking that you respect our professionalism.”

As Panning-Miller spoke, the group of 200-plus teachers filed past the board members. The teachers wore red t-shirts proclaiming, “quality schools: union made.” They left placards on the floor in front of the board, signed by teachers from the city’s schools, stating “We support our negotiating team.”

The district and Local 59 are in the midst of difficult contract negotiations. If the contract is not ratified by Jan. 15, the district faces a fine of nearly $1 million from the State of Minnesota.

MFT president Panning-Miller termed the district’s contract offer “weak and insulting.”

“We’re fighting the fact that the district is looking to minimize and freeze our pay increases,” Panning-Miller said. He also said the district seeks to back away from paying 100 percent of individual health insurance to instead offer a fixed dollar amount towards health insurance. “People would lose ground in a hurry” with any health premium increases, he noted.

The contract negotiations come at the same time that the school district has been developing a new strategic plan.

Teachers fear that the new strategic plan will upset a system that allows teachers, based in part on seniority, to transfer to open positions at schools where they seek to work.

Proponents of the plan want to give school principals more power to select the teachers for each school, claiming that the change is necessary to help boost student achievement.

MFT President Panning-Miller disputed any link between the current teacher transfer system and student achievement. “In terms of achievement, in terms of increasing academic performance, it’s irrelevant,” he said.

The strategic plan unfairly makes the teachers’ seniority system a flashpoint for a district facing many difficult issues, said Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council, speaking to the School Board.

“We all know that the Minneapolis Public Schools face tremendous challenges: lack of state support, millions of dollars of budget cuts, declining enrollment, an achievement gap between white students and students of color, and, most notably, a very high number of students who come from families living near or below the poverty line,” he said. “This is the social context challenging the school district and your teachers.

“This district should be supporting its teachers as they strive to meet these challenges,” McCarthy said. “Instead, in targeting the seniority system, your approach blames and attacks the teachers.”

“This school district is at a crossroads,” said Southwest High School teacher Michael Kennedy, addressing the School Board. “I caution you not to take advantage of my dedication to my students and this contract does it in spades.”

Kennedy emphasized the teachers’ vital role in the district: “I think we’re the best resource this system has and the [contract] proposal ensures the quality is going to fade.”

Steve Share edits the Labor Review, the official publication of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council. Visit the CLUC website, www.minneapolisunions.org

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