Friday, April 25, 2008


If only the cost of health insurance and access to health care were all we had to worry about. Sadly, for as many health insurance stories as we have been collecting, the other not-so-little black raincloud hovering over us is the budget. As I get phone calls, read parent list-serves, and hear the site council stories, all I can think of is what I learned in science about hypothermia.

Our bodies react to hypothermia in a fascinating and efficient way. As the body temperature drops, fingers and toes--once crucial to balance, mobility, agility and even communication-- are sacrificed to move any meaningful body heat to our core area to just keep us alive.

In advanced hypothermia our core body area slowly and methodically continues to shut down. A reluctant trade-off to continue subsisting--to at least stay alive-- while abandoning quality of life and body functions that make us thrive.

Our schools are suffering from funding hypothermia. It is fascinating how schools find ways to efficiently subsist, but we are losing our ability to balance. Our agility at meeting the broadest range of needs and learning styles in our students is deteriorating.
  • We are cutting SEM specialists, G/T coordinators, and special education EAs and TAs.
  • We trade trained, licensed, high-quality library/media specialists for "library volunteers."
  • We are abandoning smaller class sizes and parent liaisons.
  • We are doing unspeakable things to the working conditions of our students and our colleagues.

Site councils have left behind Solomon-like decisions and have been forced to move on to ranking jobs in a school like those body systems. Who still has the heart for this work, pun intended?

And who isn't violently shivering at the thought?

We need a healthy, sustainable funding formula that meets the comprehensive mission of a high-quality public school system for every child across St. Paul and Minnesota.

It is time to rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Insurance Stories

When I sent out a request for stories at the end of last week I had no idea the response I would get. I thought I would hear from the usual suspects for sure. Hear from a few disgruntled members because they "forgot" to do a survey, or hear from a lot of people who felt maybe I thought the sky was falling. Well, it turns out that Soilent Green is people, folks, because I had 24 emails waiting for me that first evening. I did appreciate that 4 were positive specifically about 10,000 steps, and its impact on their lives, or just neutral about it. The rest ranged from tear-jerking "Thank God I had 'Distinctions' even though it is so expensive because I never knew I would get breast cancer" to sadly pragmatic, "The money is either going to come out of my pocket through a co-pay and deductible or through Distinctions, what's the difference?" Many people spoke of taking single Distinctions and then covering their healthy children cheaper on the open market. Many told of needing Distinctions because their child/spouse was not healthy and they had no other place to turn for insurance. Some used the email as our own Taxi Cab/10,000 Steps confession for gaming the system. Some resented the narrow offering of choices that didn't cost additional money. One lactose-intolerant member wondered why the end of her annual survey included a suggestion to drink more milk.

And the stories keep on coming. Stories arrived over the weekend. Members walked up to me at the 4th Congressional district convention on Saturday to share stories. Members called with stories. My email box keeps popping up with stories.

You thanked me for taking this on. You thanked the union for taking this on. You wondered aloud why anyone with a pulse would actually question why we would act to try to reduce health care costs for our members and the greater population. Some stunning metaphors were used to bring your wonderings home most accurately, which is high praise from a licensed English teacher. Some analogies made me blush, which I suppose is high praise from an Iron Ranger.

Obviously, we are going to keep pressing on. Cost and access to quality health care is a community problem, which is going to take an entire community to solve. We are an integral part of this community. We can lead this fight and we can win it. For us, for our students, for the families we serve, and for all of Minnesota.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Peer Assistance and Review

This Monday our Executive Board had the chance to revisit the notion of Peer Assistance and Review(PAR) for the first time in many years. There was a lot of information shared, some great questions asked, and an overall feeling at the end of the day to pursue this.

Establishing a PAR program will not only help us begin to realize the power of our contract language included in the Career in Education Board section (Section 4, Subd. 4 and Section 5, Note) but it will begin to allow us an opportunity to take control of the quality of our profession as well.

Peer Assistance and Review could serve those entering our profession by being comprehensively supported and reviewed by a consulting teacher in a complementary license area. Ideally, a consulting teacher would spend hours with a probationary teacher while observing them at least 10 times. In practice now, a principal is responsible for observing a probationary teacher for 25-30 minutes three times a year. That is not nearly enough time to make an informed decision on a teacher's practice, and the principal may have no background in the teacher's license area as well.

PAR could serve those teachers in our Teacher Assistance Program as well. If a teacher has been identified as struggling in an area recognized in the Standards of Effective Teaching that teacher could have the option of continuing in the improvement plan process as currently written in the contract or accessing high-quality, confidential, peer assistance for a certain amount of time. Once that teacher chooses PAR, we could pair them up with a well-trained teacher to coach them on how to improve in areas in which improvement has been identified. The team would have a set amount of time to work. If progress is documented at the end of the coaching work, then a formal improvement plan would not be needed. If progress is not needed then the teacher needing improvement would move to the formal improvement plan.

The improvement plan language in our contract is meant to improve teachers who are struggling. The spirit of that language is meant to assist teachers and set them back on the course to working at their full potential. As stories have emerged from teachers on improvement plans, the reality is that some improvement plans feel like a mere witch hunt, some feel like retribution for asking questions at Site Council or speaking up at a staff meeting, and a few are doing what is intended: Improving teachers.

I want the opportunity for teachers to control the quality of our teaching profession. I want every improvement plan to be unconditionally dedicated to sincerely improving teachers. I want Peer Assistance and Review to be implemented in our district as one way to achieve both objectives.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Professional Issues

Ladies and Gentlemen:

There are reasons everywhere you turn for why our union needs to take central stage in tackling the issues in our profession. One of the latest I submit to you as further evidence that if we don't start controlling the direction of our profession and our working conditions, soon there will be no one left.

Exhibit A: An email sent to me by Kimberly Colbert at Central High School included this example: "Our secretary/purchaser was cleaning out leftover supplies and gave all of the staff some manila folders in their boxes. Staff response to her "gift" was a barrage of hysterical emails about whether or not we were supposed to "do something we hadn't heard about" with the folders."

Now I might be going out on a limb here, but no one freaks out over manila folders the first time they see them. No one. Imagine the years of conditioning and re-education that go into being startled by manila folders in your mail box. Empty ones.

Do I fill them with sharpened #2 pencils for the MCAs?
Are they for the photo-copies of the duplicate paperwork I copied in triplicate to justify testing that 2nd period student for special education services?
Did I miss the memo on using them to collect the time lines from our advisory lessons?
Seal the prom queen/king ballots in them to assure no voter fraud?
Do I self-label and file away my happy thoughts as a way to keep my co-pays down as part of the wellness plan?
Perhaps I file each year's 10,000 steps certificates alphabetically by each country I hypothetically walked to as a way to distract me from paying the sort of out-of-pocket costs for my family health insurance that will insure that I never actually can afford to visit one of these countries.

Regardless, it is a sad state of affairs when we are so dazed by the barrage of meaningless busy work, meetings for the sake of meetings, and directives at the drop of a hat that the site of manila folders automatically has us guessing that we did something wrong, that we somehow dropped the ball, or that we have somehow failed again.

We did not go into this profession to fail. We have not failed, but many outside of the classroom have failed at keeping the white noise of critics, fads, and red herrings at bay while we do our jobs.

Let's see what we can do about that.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Statewide Health Insurance Action Needed!

All of our work, and the larger work of Education Minnesota, has put the Statewide Health Insurance for School Employees bills (SF 2747 and HF 3112) in the respective Finance Committees on their way to being passed and landing on Governor Pawlenty's desk.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher and a broader group of leaders, staff, and activists from Education Minnesota have all been working with the Governor and addressing the lingering concerns brought up in the May 2007 veto (see blog: Thursday, May 31, 2007 Time out for a word on that veto).

Education Minnesota is proud of the proposal that has been crafted for this legislative session and, as members, we should be too. The cost of health insurance in our district, and districts across Minnesota, has been untenable. Very few solutions have been put forward and no one has worked harder to find a solution for our members than the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and Education Minnesota.

At this point we need members to contact the Governor to stress the importance of implementing the statewide health insurance pool for school employees.

We need his signature.

Please contact Governor Pawlenty using the information below from your personal telephone and email account and ask him to sign the Statewide Health Insurance Bill when it comes to his desk.

Call the Governor at: 1.800.657.3717
Email the Governor at:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Long time no see

Back in the negotiating habit as we embark upon the contract renewal for our school and community service professionals (SCSP). We have some very clear goals for the SCSP group, especially around creative and equitable leave language and a balanced salary schedule.

In the meantime, I found an article in Teacher Magazine that seemed to cut across all three bargaining units, despite being focused around empowering teachers, because the focus is on creating a workplace that is conducive to doing your best work by addressing working conditions.

I invite you to check it out (I've included the link below) and let me know your reactions to it. I will share it with our SPFT Executive Board and any district official who will listen to me.