Why the Schools Contract Talks ‘Wag The Dog’ Strategy is Bad For Minneapolis Kids

Above: A papier-mache Coleman Young; much lighter and manageable than the late Detroit mayor.


One of the more formative experiences I had as a young reporter was a marathon week of experiences put together by Wayne State University for new Detroit residents. The one on my mind today is a closed-door session we had with the top deputies to Detroit’s Afrocentric mayor, Coleman Young, and L. Brooks Patterson, the top executive of wealthy suburban Oakland County.

The two cheerfully fielded questions about how effective demonizing one another was in terms of securing their respective political bases. Far from denying it, they spooled out examples. The concept wasn’t entirely new to me, but I was agog nonetheless.

(Self-indulgent digression: A person could not make up the profane stuff Young was given to. The name plate on his desk famously read, “MFIC,” for motherfucker in charge. His pet name for Ronald Reagan was Pruneface. There was even a little red book titled, Mao Zedong-style, “The Quotations of Mayor Coleman Young.”)

I can’t see the cartoons the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is circulating underscoring the positions proposals they’ve taken in the current contract talks with Minneapolis Public Schools without thinking of the Detroit frenemies. I mean, ludicrous though it is, the comic-book visage of Superintendent Ed Graff denying teachers toilet breaks has to be galvanizing the base.

MPS has existed since 1878. Clearly people have figured out how to pee during the school day. And yet how awful does it make leadership look when they quite appropriately refuse to bargain bathroom breaks into the contract?

Similarly, no doubt MPS is broke. But there’s a Chicken Little aspect to this, too. The district has run deficits for years, failing at each juncture to deal with some of the long-term financial implications of shrinking enrollment.

(Second, non-self-indulgent digression: Do we think the $33 million “surprise” is going to be a liability to MPS Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon, who announced this week that she will seek the state House seat being vacated by Rep. Susan Allen? As the board’s longtime finance chair, Gagnon doesn’t have a ton of wiggle room here. Either she knew and left the deficit unaddressed, or she didn’t know or didn’t care to know. Still, I’ll bet she skates.)

As bad as the political kabuki on display so far has been, I wish MPS were not asking a state mediator to close the talks to the public. It’s usually the MFT that runs out the clock a little and then asks that the doors be closed. We’ve waited a decade for a chance to understand how our money gets spent and how our children’s needs are discussed. The impending closure stinks.

But man do I understand the impulse. Social media is awash in stuff like the bathroom break. There’s a demand for clean schools. For recess. For minimum wage that’s already city ordinance for non-MFT employees. Secret elections of “instructional leadership” teams.

I mean does the MFT really think MPS will agree to nag parents to opt-out of annual assessments? That even if it didn’t want the resulting data it would thumb its nose at the state and federal laws that require the tests? No, this is about making district leadership look like a bunch of nay-bobs for refusing to go along with proposals that are not, by law, within the scope of bargaining.

The district, for its part, hasn’t put anything on the table that I can see that will go any distance toward closing the persistent structural deficit. Just playing defense.

Having said all of this, there are four things on the agenda I hope MPS – which has put together a really helpful “negotiations” page on its website — will continue to help the public track.

  • MPS has proposed and the MFT has rejected a proposal that says teachers whose jobs are eliminated who refuse to participate in the process of interviewing for new ones should be placed on administrative leave. If they refuse to seek a new job a second time, the district can terminate them. Or the teacher can take, essentially, a buyout.I’m given to understand about 130 of the 400 teachers excessed last year refused to participate in the placement process. A sizeable number were forcibly placed in schools that had openings. Dollars to doughnuts they’re not in the schools teachers are clamoring to bid into. This has to stop. It’s bad for everyone, and most especially kids.
  • The MFT has asked for a series of things designed to forestall any drop in membership if, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court rules against unions in the current Janus case. If that happens and unions can no longer charge “fair share” fees to teachers who do not want to join, the membership rolls and coffers of one of the nation’s strongest state unions could wither quickly.

    (Insert emoji of conflicting feels, before seguing on to the point…)
    The proposals on deck right now would require the district, and any public charter school that might occupy a current or former MPS building, to hand over things like new hires’ cell phones and home addresses. What could possibly go wrong with that?

  • The MFT proposals about student discipline are frightening, in a very St. Paul-Como High-Katherine Kersten kind of way.
  • The MFT has yet to reply to a proposal that would protect new teachers trained in MPS’ “grow your own” teacher residency programs from seniority-based layoffs. These fledgling programs are the major pipeline for certifying new teachers of color and Native American teachers and which will be a supplier of special ed teachers in desperate short supply. They’ve also drawn significant philanthropic and state dollars.The MFT is a partner in one of them. Graduates likely will be MFT members. The MFT is sprinkling the word equity around like confetti. What’s it going to do here?

The mutual vilification Detroit and its northern white neighbors engaged in, of course, did not lead to prosperity or harmony. In fact, if you want to talk about cautionary tales, look no further.

Minneapolis still has the chance to create a school system that works for all kids. But it’s going to require a totally different level of conversation to get there.


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