Activists call for action on layoff protections for Minneapolis teachers of color

By: - February 24, 2022 9:24 am

Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis Public Schools, already facing a shortage of teachers of color, could lose still more in the face of a budget shortfall and last-in-first-out layoff policies that disproportionately affect teachers of color because they tend to be younger and have less seniority.

Some activists are urging the Minneapolis teachers union and school district to finalize policies aimed at protecting teachers of color from potential layoffs — a move they say is more urgent than ever with a possible teacher strike and school budget deadlines looming.

When the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and MPS started contract negotiations in February 2021, they publicly agreed a change in the seniority-based layoff policy would support their shared goal of improving retention of teachers of color.

A year later, the district and union still haven’t reached a deal on this issue or other key proposals, and the union is set to strike in 10 days if they can’t hammer out a contract.

Meanwhile, MPS officials say discussions about layoffs are “unavoidable” as they stare down a projected $21.5 million budget shortfall next year. Individual schools are scheduled to submit their budgets — which would include potential staffing cuts — in early March, and advocates fear that layoff policy changes after that date could be too late to make a difference.  

The teachers union — including some people of color in its ranks — say the issue is a sideshow that seeks to weaken the union and its bargaining power. 

In a public letter, Edward Barlow, Kelsey Clark, Caroline Long, Amal Omar Samatar, Daniel Alberto Perez — members of the educators of color bargaining team — wrote that the district was using the seniority issue as a wedge to crack union solidarity.

“(The district’s) real focus should be on supporting, recruiting/retaining educators of color, increasing enrollment, improving our schools, and fighting for more funding from the Legislature,” they wrote. “Their objective is to persuade you that seniority is the problem so that they can attempt to dismantle our union/our contract.”

MFT President Greta Callahan said in a statement to the Reformer that the district is losing so many teachers — including teachers of color — to resignations and retirements that tenured teachers wouldn’t be affected by budget cuts. “We can’t fill all of the vacancies we currently have,” she said.

The union has pushed for a focus on working conditions, arguing improvements to pay and safety would be more effective at keeping teachers of color from leaving the district. Activists say they want action on those proposals too, but budget deadlines demand quick action on the seniority issue.

Kenneth Eban, director of the Advancing Equity Coalition, is part of a group of activists calling on Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to finalize layoff protections for teachers of color. Courtesy photo.

“That doesn’t mean preventing (teachers of color who want to stay) from being excessed or laid off can’t be a priority too,” said Kenneth Eban, director of the advocacy group Advancing Equity Coalition. “This isn’t a controversial thing we’re asking for.”

Some teachers say the impasse on seniority exemptions leaves them questioning where district and union priorities lie. Alexis Mann, a veteran teacher at Harrison High School and self-described proud union member, said she doesn’t think the issue has been treated with the urgency it deserves.

“It makes me wonder if they are bargaining in good faith around teachers of color,” Mann said. 

MPS didn’t respond to an interview request.

LIFO lives on in Minnesota 

Minnesota law required districts to use seniority as the primary factor in layoff decisions until 2017. Even with the law repealed, very few districts have managed to negotiate exemptions to seniority order in staff reductions, said Katie Pekel, a University of Minnesota researcher who specializes in educational leadership.

Meanwhile, school districts across the country are increasingly moving away from last-in, first-out policies, said Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality. Teacher contracts rely on seniority as the sole factor in staff reduction decisions in just 28 of the nation’s 147 largest school districts, according to an NCTQ database.

School districts have opted for criteria other than years of experience, in response to research showing the policies disproportionately affect teachers of color, Holston said. Minneapolis’ teacher workforce is more racially diverse than the state as a whole, but still whiter than its student body: 18% of teachers are people of color, compared to 62% of students.

Research shows learning from teachers of color is linked to benefits for students of color, from higher overall academic achievement to improved graduation rates. Experts cite increased teacher diversity as a key component of closing the achievement gap.

Less-experienced teachers are also more likely to be assigned to schools with high proportions of low-income and non-white students, studies show. That means these students experience more staff churn — and its destabilizing effects — as a result of layoffs than their peers at wealthier, whiter schools.

MPS data shows teachers of color face job changes from budget cuts at higher rates than white teachers. During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 23% of “excessed” teachers — meaning their positions in a certain school or program were eliminated — were teachers of color, while teachers of color made up 18% of the workforce.

School leaders identified seniority as a hurdle to retaining teachers of color in a 2018 MPS equity assessment. 

“Every year, I face having to release the most recent hires. I spend many hours recruiting outside of Minneapolis for teachers of color, but during (school budget development), I end up having to excess many of them,” the report quotes one administrator as saying. 

Being excessed doesn’t necessarily put teachers out of a job — they can interview for other open positions within the district. Still, being excessed is disruptive for both teachers and students, Eban said, and can make teachers more vulnerable to layoffs if they’re not able to find another position.

Stalled negotiations leave activists anxious

Over months of public contract negotiations in 2021, MPS and the union each put forward several proposals allowing for exemptions to seniority order in layoffs.

In December, the union proposed a memorandum of agreement — which is less formal than a contract and could be authorized while contract negotiations continue — that combines some suggestions from both groups.

The memorandum would allow deviations from seniority order to protect students’ “access to educators of color and/or educators who reflect the diversity of enrolled students” in some cases, including the 15 most racially segregated and low-income schools; Montessori schools; certain language programs; graduates of a program aimed at recruiting local teachers; and graduates of HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities and Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities programs.

But negotiations over that proposal and others have taken place behind closed doors since the district and union entered mediation in December — leaving advocates anxiously awaiting public updates about potential exemptions to last-in, first-out.

Eban and a coalition of education advocates hope the district and union sign off on the memorandum before schools submit their budgets in early March, although they’d like to see it apply districtwide, not just at certain schools. MPS officials have said they may have to lay off up to 134 employees due to budget shortfalls, and Eban fears the brunt would fall on educators of color.

The union has described the district’s talk of potential layoffs and creating exemptions to seniority as disingenuous, arguing MPS loses far more teachers of color to better jobs elsewhere than through budget cuts. Union leaders say their demands — including 20% pay raises and smaller class sizes — would be the best way to improve retention of teachers of color.

In a statement to the Reformer, the union president, Callahan, said administrators already have some power to consider teacher diversity in layoffs. 

Seniority doesn’t apply to “probationary” teachers, meaning those without tenure, with one to three years of experience. They’ll be the first to face layoffs, though the administration decides who to keep or let go.

Teachers of color make up a disproportionate share of this group: 37% of Minneapolis teachers of color were probationary in 2020, compared to 23% of white teachers, according to a district report. 

Eban said the discussion shouldn’t be about whether changing the seniority-based layoff policy or negotiating better working conditions is more important. Both are valuable in retaining more teachers of color, he said, but activists are pushing the union and district to act fast on seniority exemptions as budget deadlines approach.

Pekel, with the University of Minnesota, said diversifying the teacher workforce requires a range of strategies, including recruiting efforts, adjusting contract language and ensuring schools offer culturally responsive environments.

“If we keep putting people into the workforce pipeline and they don’t remain, that’s filling a leaky pot,” Holton said. “Not to say it’s easy for people who are trying to make tough decisions, but it is more of a ‘both’ (approach) and not an ‘either or’. “

Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented layoff policies in St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin schools. In St. Paul, teachers are laid off in order of seniority, with exemptions for teachers with Montessori certifications, certain teachers at immersion schools and teachers in American Indian studies programs. Anoka-Hennepin allows exemptions when following seniority order would “place the District in violation of its affirmative action program.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.