Minneapolis school district, teachers may miss contract deadline


The Minneapolis school district appears likely to miss a state-mandated Jan. 15 deadline to settle a contract with the district’s teachers. The consequence could be a fine to the Minneapolis Public Schools from the Minnesota Department of Education equal to $25 per student in the district – a total of about $800,000. “The district decided they didn’t want to meet over this past weekend, when we should have been hitting it hard,” reported Lynn Nordgren, president of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59, in a Jan. 12 interview.

Nordgren expressed frustration with the school district’s approach to negotiations for the new two-year contract. “I like to get things done and get agreements made,” she said. “We felt we offered a reasonable settlement; we didn’t get anything in return.”

In the face of budget challenges for the school district, Nordgren said the district’s 3,300 teachers “were willing to take a zero percent increases in their salaries.”

However, she said, teachers would not accept a “hard freeze” that would eliminate “step” and “lane” pay increases that reward teachers for years of service and the attainment of additional professional training.

“We want to make sure our teachers feel respected and valued,” Nordgren said.

Teachers seek pay for time worked
Another big issue for teachers: teachers insisted that the district honor a signed agreement to pay them for additional work performed last year under the innovative “Q-Comp” program promoted by Governor Tim Pawlenty. This work included staff development training and other work outside the classroom.

For six years in a row, Nordgren noted, the district had honored the agreement. “Now the district has decided they don’t want to pay people for the work they did.” For teachers, the issue is simple: “We’re asking to be compensated for the work we’ve already completed.”

Nordgren said MFT Local 59 estimated the “Q-Comp” payment would be $6-$9 million, while the district cites an “inflated” sum of $15 million.

“Teachers felt betrayed by the district,” Nordgren said. “We feel like we did come to the table with an open mind. We wanted to problem-solve. The district brought nothing to the table, they kept asking us to give.”

Nordgren said teacher salaries represent only 35.9 percent of the district’s budget.

She noted that teachers helped pass tax levies to increase funding for the district in recent years. In addition, she reported, “teachers pay an average of $600 per year out of their own pocket for classroom supplies,” totalling $1.8 million per year.

MFT 59 also estimates, she said, that teachers give $3 million in unpaid overtime every two weeks to the district.

In short, teachers are angry and frustrated. “We decided to draw a line in the sand” on must-have contract concerns, Nordgren said. “It’s what our members asked us to do.”

‘Standing Together for Students’
Several weeks ago, hundreds of MFT Local 59 members turned out for a Nov. 18 rally to kick-off the contract campaign, emphasizing the theme, “Standing Together for Students.”

“Over the last 10 years, class sizes have been increasing steadily,” reported teacher Jim Thomas, who has worked in the Minneapolis Public Schools since 1987. “There’s an average increase in kindergarten of 8-10 students. That’s huge.”

Teachers wrote down their concerns on a large scroll of paper to be presented to the school board. “Too many kids and no time to plan,” one teacher wrote.

With 11 years in the district, Scott Smedberg, second grade teacher at Lucy Laney, agreed. “Keeping class size low is an important thing to do.” He added: “You get to know the kids better and give them more individual attention and motivate them more to become learners.”

“I just want to stand up for the kids,” said Deb Tveite, a second grade teacher at Anderson school, who has worked in the district since 2001. “We can provide them a better education if we had more materials, more books.”

“We need to stick together because solidarity is the only way we’re going to make change in our schools,” said Christine Canard, a fourth grade teacher at Jenny Lind School with 17 years in the district.

“It feels like we’re not treated as professionals,” said Karen Braye, a first grade teacher at Anishinabe Academy with nine years in the district.

On-line petition
The teachers are calling on the community for support and seek names to add to an on-line petition at www.mft59.org.

With contract negotiations at a stalemate, Local 59 filed a grievance with the Minnesota Department of Education seeking to resolve the “Q-Comp” pay issue through an arbitrator.

“We will keep negotiating” on teacher pay and contract language, Nordgren pledged. She said she hoped the district would come back to the table ready to settle a fair contract: “Bargaining is a two-way street.”

Steve Share edits the Labor Review, the official publication of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.minneapolisunions.org