Groups Push to Open Teacher Contract Negotiations to Parents, Public

Updated: 03/04/2014 9:19 AM
Created: 03/03/2014 8:24 PM
By: Stephen Tellier

The Minneapolis Public School district has reached a tentative teacher contract deal with its teachers' union. But we won't know what's actually in that deal until it's already been approved.

It's a process that has some groups demanding talks in the future, across Minnesota, be open to the public.

Teacher contract negotiations across the state involve hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. State mediators say talks are more productive when the public and the media are kept away. Two groups that don't typically have much in common beg to differ.

"This is a question of whether or not we should allow government and labor unions to divvy up taxpayer dollars behind closed doors," said Jonathan Blake, vice president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

For Blake, it's an issue of transparency.

"The public finds out how their money is being spent, how much is being spent, what it's being spent on after it's already done," Blake said.

"I want to see the process play out. I want to be part of the process," said Latasha Gandy, the Minnesota program director for Students for Education Reform.

Gandy said she's most concerned about Minneapolis' achievement gap for students of color. SFER Minnesota protested outside the closed talks last year.

"They say we lack community engagement, but then when it gets tough or they want to make a decision, they decide to just shut us out," Gandy said.

It's actually the state Bureau of Mediation Services' policy to close such talks. All talks start as public, but either side can ask the bureau to step in at anytime.

The bureau says, "... public or media participation in the mediation process tends to have an adverse impact on the mediation process and the settlement of a collective bargaining dispute."

"By that logic, you could shut down contract negotiations, then we also should have private legislative sessions, we shouldn't have an open meetings law," Blake said.

The Minneapolis negotiations were far from unique. Sixty Minnesota school districts have gone through state mediation recently. That includes St. Paul, which narrowly avoided a strike vote. Thirty-three districts are still stuck at the bargaining table.

Gandy wants taxpayers to have a seat at that table.

"When it's ultimately all said and done, this contract is the community's," Gandy said.

The president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers said negotiations were much more productive once the talks were closed to the public. She also noted that the union and the district negotiated publicly for more than 100 hours before entering mediation, and that the union held many community events aimed at reaching out to parents and community members. She said the union received input from more than 2,000 people over two years.

The Freedom Foundation wants all such mediation sessions to be opened to the public. SFER Minnesota said at the very least, the law should say both sides have to agree to closed talks. In St. Paul, the teachers' union actually wanted to keep the talks open. The district closed them.

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