Public debate vs. community engagement


One person’s community engagement is another person’s public debate. As the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the Minneapolis Public Schools district are deeply immersed in negotiations about the new teachers’ contract, both sides say they can’t say too much about the process at this point while they are still figuring things out.

But just because the teachers, administrators and board members are constrained with what they can say, doesn’t mean others can’t speak their mind. While things seem to be pretty cordial at the negotiating table, words are heating up beyond the walls of the MFT building. 

Former school board member Chris Stewart, who started the campaign Action For Equity, along with Put Kids First and numerous other partners and supporters, has been advocating for a “third voice” in the teacher negotiations. The “Contract for Student Achievement” calls specifically for performance-based staffing and is harshly critical of seniority rules. Stewart has been blogging about the campaign on his website, republished at TC Daily Planet, and the campaign has been covered by the Star Tribuneand other publications.

Having sat through one negotiating session already, I wasn’t super thrilled about going to another, but after leaving messages for Lynn Nordgren, President of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers all week, I figured the only way I was going to get a quote from her about the Contract for Student Achievement, which I’m assigned to write about, was to go down there and try to talk to her in person.

Saturday’s session was scheduled from 9-4, at least according to an email I had received from Chris Stewart, the major force behind the Contract for Student Achievement campaign. So I showed up about a quarter to three, thinking I’d watch paint dry for an hour during the session before talking to Nordgren.

The first thing that Nordgren said to me was that Chris Stewart’s blogging was full of lies. The second thing she told me was that she didn’t know how much she could say.

In particular, Nordgren was upset that Stewart had picked up on one of the ideas brought up in the negotiating session — parent report cards — and written about it. “We were just brainstorming,” she said. “Ideas come up — to stimulate our thinking.” Stewart’s writing was “full of misrepresentation,” she said. “We aren’t blaming anybody. We’re talking about advocating for our students.”

I asked Nordgren if she’d be willing to write a counterargument for TC Daily Planet, to balance Stewart’s blogging. She told me that she and her team had been thinking about whether to write an op-ed, but she wasn’t sure it was a good idea. “I don’t know if we want to wage a public debate in the newspapers,” she said.

What we as news writers choose to include in our coverage is something I’ve thought about before. Though the Contract for Student Achievement people aren’t actually a part of the negotiations, that’s what I’m writing about. They may not have any say in the actual contract, but as media, we are giving them a platform. Are we giving them more of a voice than they might have otherwise? Possibly. Is that a bad thing?

Nordgren isn’t the only one keeping quiet. Steve Liss, from MPS, and school board member Jill Davis also felt that now was not the time to comment about what is happening in the negotiating sessions (though of course, any one can come and observe them).

“Our ability to do a lot of commenting is limited legally,” Jill Davis said in a telephone interview. She wants to be respectful of the process, and said she may comment after the negotiating process is over. “A lot of people… actually are aware of the legal limitations that the board has on the negotiations. I wish the conversation would have begun at a different time, so we could have a genuinely meaningful conversation.”

But Seth Kirk, co-founder and vice president of Put Kids First, said the length of time devoted to contract negotiations is too long. He observed many of the sessions the last time negotiations took place, which he said lasted nearly a year. Since, by state law, the contracts last two years, that leaves little time for talking.

“The issue with the process,” he said, “is this becomes the one conversation between teachers and administration. They talk about some pretty petty things in my opinion. This is the one place it seems where they get to talk about how schools are run.”

Kirk said having prolonged contract negotiations “puts a crimp in other conversations.” While he agrees with the basic concept that the union negotiates wages and health care benefits, he thinks to have defining how schools are run be “a province cloistered that happens half of the time…seems dysfunctional. We should be talking about this stuff all the time.”

Nordgren agrees that conversations between teachers and administration shouldn’t be limited to when contract negotiations are taking place. At a session last week, the union proposed bringing back the practice of having a Professional Leadership Team (PLT), which the district had for 14 years starting in the late 80s. The PLT was designed to have conversations throughout the year about issues that would come up between teachers and administration. Though the exact make-up for a new PLT hasn’t been finalized, the general idea is that it would include teachers, principals, administration, and parents and community members. 

“It’s really time for collaboration,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. We need to sit down together — all those interested parties, and push up our sleeves.” Nordgren said there are community groups that the union works with, including the Community Standards Initiative and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “It’s time for people to work together. We’re not going to get anywhere if we are going to be attacking and dismissing people. We are interested in collaboration and we always have been. And that’s how we operate.” 

Nordgren said negotiations are going really well so far. “We are in very good relationship with our school district at the moment. I see a lot of positive changes going on. We are collaborating well. There’s a lot of listening. That’s a nice change form the past 5 or 6 years. There’s a change in our atmosphere and our climate… we’re not ‘duking it out.’ I’m very encouraged by our district leadership. The superintendent, the CEO, the associate superintendents — how hard everybody is working to be inclusive and collaborative.”

We’ll soon be publishing an article that goes into a bit more depth about the proposals in the Contract for Student Achievement, and about what the other side has to say about it, including whether it’s even the right conversation to be having right now. In the meantime: what do you think about the negotiations?