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Teacher realignment was a politically expedient (& illegal) option
by Doug Mann, 11 September 2004

[Introductory note] The district's recent layoff and realignment decisions are influenced by a cost containment strategy that was widely adopted by unionized employers in the 1970s, and which no longer contains costs very well. We have also seen a fairly steady decline in per-pupil spending on public education (in inflation-adjusted dollars) since the late 1970s. The Board can lower overhead and per-pupil costs by laying off teachers only as necessary, by distributing probationary teachers evenly throughout the district, and by eliminating tracking (which would lower overhead costs associated with tracking and make small schools cost effective). An increase in student enrollment would temporarily offset increases in per-pupil payroll costs related to lower teacher turnover.
In an article titled "Declining enrollment a serious problem, which appeared in the Metropolis section of the Spokesman-Recorder of September 9-15, MPS board members Audrey D. Johnson and Joseph Erickson wrote,

"Parents and Teachers working to overturn the realignment have focused their criticism on a perceived lack of vision or leadership on the part of the board (and the teachers' union), not fully comprehending the fact that realignment is not a 'choice,' it is state law."

[Comment by Doug Mann] Johnson and Erickson offer no evidence, no reasoned argument to support the above assertion.

The 1986 Strand decision requires school districts in Minnesota to make a reasonable effort to preserve the employment of "tenured" teachers, not probationary teachers. Yet the district reassigned 140 tenured, elementary teachers to other areas in order to save the jobs of up to 92 tenured elementary teachers. Evidently, the district preserved the employment of at least 48 probationary teachers and kept them in elementary classroom teacher positions by shifting the burden of laying off and not rehiring probationary (and possibly some tenured teachers) in Special Ed programs.

Board members, including Sharon Henry-Blythe expressed the hope that the district could preserve the jobs of newly hired elementary classroom teachers during at least one board meeting prior to the last weekend in June, when top administrators, in consultation with legal counsel for the district and the teachers' union, came up with the realignment plan.

The district's enrollment losses since 1998 have been heavily concentrated in early elementary grades, so it stands to reason that another big decline in K-3 to 6 enrollment would compel the district to lay off most or all the elementary teachers who are on probationary status and not qualified to teach in other areas. The district evidently has plenty of probationary teachers in other areas, given that 455 probationary teachers were laid off last spring and summer. The 2003-2004 budget called for fewer than 1700 teacher positions in
regular and special Ed programs.

This past spring and summer the district administration, with board approval laid off a total of 608 teachers, though the budget approved this year had only 210 fewer teacher positions than were called for in the 2003-2004 budget. The teacher tenure act states that the district may lay off as many teachers as may be necessary due to falling enrollment, financial shortfalls, etc. The district administration, with board approval, clearly chose to layoff more teachers than necessary, with the intention of rehiring a majority of teachers who do not find other jobs.

Prior to April 2004 the district had already cut some teacher jobs that had been budgeted for the 2003-2004 school year due to the actual student enrollment in the fall of 2003 being about 1,600 students less than the budgeted enrollment. And there were some resignations / retirements prior to April 1. So it is doubtful that the district really needed to lay off as many as 200 teachers (full and part-timers) in the first place.

Excessive layoffs increase teacher turnover and increase the proportion of inexperienced, low-wage teachers on the payroll. New, inexperienced teachers with a bachelors degree get about $33,000 per year plus benefits. A Teacher with a master's degree who is employed for 10 years gets about $57,000 plus benefits. The district has a financial incentive to jack up the teacher turnover rate. Probationary teachers are very easy to fire, high-seniority teachers face "under the table" retaliation and can be fired on some pretext or another for criticizing the district's leadership. The huge difference in wage rates, from the top to the bottom of the pay scale, inspire extreme caution in most high seniority teachers that want to keep their jobs. That's why a majority of teachers union members and their union officers have demonstrated an extreme aversion to rocking the boat.

Even the realigned teachers who considered legal action against the district were easily persuaded to not take any effective legal action. Labor attorney Gregg Corwin agreed to represent a group of 20+ teachers on the condition that his clients not allege that the district violated their contract or the teacher tenure act in any way. Corwin acknowledged that he had a conflict of interest: He worked for many unions, including an AFSCME local that represents MPS employees. Alleging that the district violated the teachers' contract would put him at odds with the teachers union and a labor-endorsed school board.

The payroll cost containment strategy generally adopted by union employers during the late 1970s, including the Minneapolis School Board, consists of holding down hikes in base wages and increasing the number and height of pay ladder steps. That works pretty well, from the employer's perspective, until a very large proportion of employees get near the top of the ladder. This was the dilemma faced by the Minneapolis Public Schools. The concentration of probationary teachers in the "more challenging schools" and excessive layoffs creates a revolving door for new teachers.

Emptying out the district run schools and replacing them with charter schools is another way to hold down costs. Shrinking enrollment translates into shrinking per-pupil revenues from the state and federal government, but does not directly affect property tax revenues. Former Superintendent Jennings had a vision of converting all of the district's schools into district-sponsored charter schools. The Minneapolis school board is also seeking changes in the teacher tenure act that Governor Tim Pawlenty advocates: Stripping teachers of their tenure and seniority rights, and the reintroduction of merit pay ("pay for performance"). In order to not provoke opposition from teachers in other districts, the Minnesota legislature will probably opt for a new teacher tenure act that applies only to Minneapolis (or the state's first class cities).     

The imperatives of the district's cost containment strategy clash with a part of the plan to improve the quality of instruction and close the gap which I advocate: Stop excessive layoffs and distribute probationary teachers evenly throughout the district. That would raise the average level of teacher expertise and reduce the average difference in teacher expertise between schools. The other part of my plan to close the gap, the phasing out of ability grouping would cut costs associated with maintaining multiple curriculum tracks, especially in small schools (which may be cost effective without tracking, and possibly less expensive than big schools due to savings on transportation). Phasing out low ability groups can also make the district's schools more attractive, if it is done intelligently and with broad support within the school community. And if we don't permanently close down any schools, we will have the space to accommodate a stampede of students into the district's schools.

To address the cost containment issues created by a steep pay ladder, I recommend that the district push for raising base wages and decreasing the difference in wages from the top to the bottom of the scale. I also recommend phasing in deep cuts in the administrative budget, especially in the area of salaries for highly compensated employees. Average salaries for school principals and most department heads are now about $100,000 per year plus benefits.

-Doug Mann, King Field
Mann for School Board