Minneapolis’ School Board: Hoisted with its Own Petard?

Why I think the New School Board Will Address the Little-i Inequities But Stop at Trying to Solve the Big Ones


Ah, how quickly the bloom goes off the rose.

A Minneapolis School Board with a new political majority has been feeling its oats since the first of the year. It didn’t take long for things to get rocky.

In the new board’s most dramatic chapter yet, a couple of weeks ago about 150 community members organized by a faction of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers showed up to protest what they said were the forced resignations of seven district employees who are people of color. With just Don Samuels voting no, the board supermajority could not move swiftly enough to reverse the decisions.

And so the next week it was forced to convene a special meeting to hear from principals and others who deplored the board’s intercession, insisting that there were more clear-headed ways to make personnel decisions and noting that the board overruled school leaders without so much as requesting information about the cases at hand.

The board insisted it was acting out of a concern for equity. And indeed a pattern of forcing people of color out of jobs in schools, where they are desperately needed, would be a very bad—and sadly not surprising–thing.

But let’s pause, because in short order the universe has served the board an opportunity to address equity on a much larger and more impactful scale. Dollars to doughnuts the new board walks—nay, sprints—away from this one.

In March Superintendent Ed Graff told the board Minneapolis Public Schools faces a $28 million budget shortfall. In addition to making a “one-time” withdrawal from district reserves he plans to make up the gap with a 10 percent cut to the central office and 2 percent to schools. That translates, Graff said late last week, to the elimination of the equivalent of 300 jobs.

Which means, in all likelihood, that dozens of people of color are about to lose their jobs. The same union that backed the protest has blocked, with extraordinarily narrow exceptions, any changes to its teacher contract that would allow school leaders to lay off staff in a manner that would keep a diversified teacher corps in the building.

Sure, those narrow exceptions allow, say, a Montessori school to prevent a teacher with a Montessori license from being bumped by a more senior band teacher laid off elsewhere, or a language-immersion school from similarly losing its bilingual-license teachers.

But there’s no such thing as a diversity exception to the controversial “last-in, first out” provision that says the most junior teachers and staff are laid off first. And the narrow exceptions that do exist were negotiated over threats of strikes.

(Teachers union leaders would likely argue that the layoffs are the fault of the stingy folks over at the Legislature and that if education had enough funding they wouldn’t be necessary. That’s true, but it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and: We can both demand adequate funding and staffing laws that take kids needs into account.)

We know that strict adherence to laying teachers off by seniority has long had an adverse impact on people of color in a couple of different ways. For decades, teachers of color have complained that they have a tendency to be last-hired and thus are disproportionately impacted by seniority-based layoffs. And while research has borne this out, it also has shown the largest factor in schools’ inability to retain teachers of color is working conditions.

I’m dating myself, but the MPS layoffs of the early 2000s cut so deep into the staff that the district was left with a large proportion of older teachers. Which in recent years has meant the hiring of large numbers of new teachers—some 300 in 2014 and a projected need to hire that many for at least a couple more years. Many–I’ve heard some years as many as 40 percent–were teachers of color.

The budget and its specific cuts have yet to be presented to the school board, but it’ll be fascinating to see what a board with a majority the MFT fought like heck to elect—indeed one member is an education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation—does with this. Especially after having positioned themselves as the equity slate.

And having been willing to vault the norms of governance, in which the board manages the superintendent and the superintendent oversees things like whether principals are treating their staffs equitably, it’ll be interesting to see whether these same board members have the courage to acknowledge the inequities inherent in seniority-based layoffs.

Yep, inequities plural. The other major problem come layoff time is that new, often probationary, teachers are concentrated in highly disproportionate numbers in high-poverty schools serving clusters of children of color. In the wake of the layoffs of the ‘00s, plenty of impoverished MPS schools had annual turnover rates north of 200 percent. One, which—surprise!—no longer exists had more than 400 percent.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. A 2010 study of California’s 15 largest districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found huge disparities: “If seniority-based layoffs are applied for teachers with up to two years’ experience, highest-poverty schools would lose some 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools, and highest-minority schools would lose 60 percent more teachers than would schools with the fewest minority students.”

“Where districts seek to minimize the effects of budget reduction policies on students,” researchers concluded, “it is clear that the disproportionate impact of seniority-based layoffs on high-poverty and high-minority schools must be considered.”

The impact, to be clear: The loss of teachers or school leaders is always disruptive to a school community. The loss of that many and you don’t have a community per se.

Nor, I would argue, do you give new teachers an equitable chance to learn from master teachers, to acquire the right skills. No wonder so many quit during their first five years in the profession.

A quick look at the numbers shows this inequity writ large here and now. In 2015 at Anderson United, where one of the probationary staffers whose case the board reversed was said to have been asked to resign, 43 of 123 teachers had been on the job three years or less. At Hmong International, the figure was 16 of 57. At Bethune, 23 of 32.

At River Bend, the self-contained special education program that was the supposed site of the horrific narrative recounted at the board meeting, the denial of food to students, in 2015 fully half the 30-member teaching staff was probationary.

So here’s my question: The budgetary unpleasantness will be on the agenda at the board’s May and June meetings. Quite possibly emboldened by the board’s willingness to auger a protective moat around staff of color, folks may show up to protest the inequities inherent in the impending layoffs.

Having planted a flag and declared themselves the champions of equity, what will board members do? And what, when the board majority uses the teacher contract for political cover, will the leaders of the recent protest do?


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