Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Solving the budget and learning deficit, together

At the November SPFT membership meeting, the members present determined that we should go through a process of gathering input from members across the district about the just-then announced projected SPPS district budget deficit for 2010-11.

Building stewards and SPFT leaders took time in January and February to hold SPFT-community conversations about the SPPS budget in buildings and program sites. They brought over 61 unique ideas for cost-cutting or revenue-raising from our members to the February membership meeting to share. Our SPFT Executive Board looked at every idea and discussed them at length at our March meeting. We passed along every idea to Superintendent Valeria Silva and the SPFT Executive Board narrowed down the prioritized recommendations, based on the frequency with which they were mentioned or another relevant factor, to share with the Board of Education.

We owe much thanks to the building stewards and leaders who took time to have this important conversation with members. If our union and our members want to be a part of decision-making in St. Paul Public Schools, we must be part of the brain-storming and problem-solving as well. We will continue taking ideas and share them with the District until the final 2010-11 budget is passed.

This budget deficit was not created by a singular situation, and the solution will not be a singular one either. Every decision, whether complex, monumental and gut-wrenching like school closings or seemingly simple like no more dry erase markers, will have consequences.

Will it be possible to solve this financial deficit and better meet the needs of our students? Can we be just as mindful of the deficit that has built up in their education that doesn't get the same attention as the looming end to a fiscal year and the neatness of a balance sheet? How can we work together just as hard to insure that all of our students in St. Paul Public Schools have access to a high-quality, universal school experience that prepares them for a world that is evolving in front of us?
• Right now, students have a 100% chance of their hair stylist being properly licensed through a standards-based licensure program, but not a 100% chance of their teacher being properly licensed at the beginning of their teaching career.
• Right now, access to information doubles every 6 months because of technology, but our students are served in over 80 school libraries/media centers by just over a dozen full-time, licensed library-media specialists.
• Right now not a week goes by without some publication lamenting that there is an obesity epidemic in children, yet there is no guaranteed access to a licensed health/physical education specialist for elementary school children.

When will these deficits, and more that we could list and our members have the expertise to meet, be addressed as urgently? What role can our union members, together with our Board of Education and Superintendent Valeria Silva, play in addressing the learning needs of all our students so that we can proudly offer the best, high-quality, universal public school experience for every student in St. Paul?
It will be up to all of us to make sure that students are not merely still served as a result of these decisions, but that our students are actually better served whenever possible. If that is not possible, then we must be willing to admit that, and do everything we can collectively to remedy it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sorrow from Central High School

The work that fills the days of all of us is put into perspective by the tragic death of a child, one of our students. Children are the reason we do any of this work: successful conferences, well-designed lesson plans, balancing a budget, negotiating professional working conditions. We do all of this work for those children and their families who trust us with their most precious resource.

When we lose a student, the rumors or innuendo swirling around what happened distract us from the profound loss we experience in a school, a district, and in our future. As the news spread about the accident that took a Central High School student’s life our first thoughts were of that student, then the family and school community, and then to the students we serve and would face the next day. For some of us our lessons today went exactly as planned, for others it was a teaching day they hope never to experience again. Regardless, many of us paused and looked at our students differently, maybe watched them walk to the bus a little longer than usual, or made an extra phone call home before ending a school day that we would never get back.

In high school I memorized a passage of Meditation XVII from John Donne, the metaphysical writer, because it was an assignment and I thought it was a cool piece of trivia to learn that one writer (Hemingway) could lift a line from another writer (Donne) and use it as his book title (For Whom the Bell Tolls). What I didn’t know is I would remember it because it speaks so accurately of our interconnectedness, in this case how all of us come together to make our district whole.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

While it speaks to how we are made lesser by our losses, our losses can also remind us to redouble our efforts to do our best work preparing for conferences, delivering lessons, settling the budget, negotiating for our members, and making our profession stronger on behalf of the students and families we serve as the best and only way to fill that void.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Devastating Race to the Top news

Minnesota is not a finalist for the Phase 1 Race to the Top grant funds from the Federal Department of Education. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers first worked to learn about Race to the Top, we questioned it, we offered ideas and feedback to the Minnesota Department of Education at every opportunity and we decided to support Minnesota’s application. It is very disappointing that Minnesota was not named as a finalist today, yet we can be proud of the work we did on the application.

The restructuring we are required to do remains mandatory, but today's announcement means we will have to continue that work in the district with money we don’t have. The bolder innovation and further possibilities for innovation we just successfully negotiated into our contract are in serious financial jeopardy as a result.

With all of that said, this is not a moment to give up, but it is a moment to redouble our efforts and perhaps even find more creative solutions to funding our ideas—as we did with our teacher recruitment and preparation ideas that have become CareerTeacher, which is now funded with a 1-year planning grant from the AFT Innovation Fund. We will continue to pay attention to any next steps that evolve from this announcement or the Race to the Top program and determine what our involvement could be as well.

I am grateful for those who believed in our value in the discussion and application development.

Friday, January 22, 2010

To everything, a season

The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers knew that we were going to have difficult contract negotiations when we formed our team last year. Starting in February 2009, the Board of Education publicly and prominently took every opportunity to unilaterally impose a non-negotiated wage and benefit freeze on us. Yet, while the economy was already daunting and the budget discussion at the legislature and Board of Education had our attention, what also had us concerned was that we were going to be negotiating a contract amidst a great deal of uncertainty. The superintendent was leaving, three school board members were up for re-election, two of our high schools were going through grueling and punishing restructuring, and American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds were being spent in our district without any teacher input.

We realized we had a choice: we could try to ride it out or we could show leadership ourselves and steer the ship. We decided to take the opportunity to show leadership and go into this round of contract negotiations with a powerful set of values guiding our agendas, our discussions, and our decisions. We focused our priorities in values that recognize the most important work in education occurs between educator and student,knowing that effective decision-making in education must arise from an educator’s professional practice in order to be good for students, and we wanted to ensure that educators are valued and that teaching is a sustainable profession. We were determined to show that our union is committed to help deliver excellent education to all learners and it can be done through our contract.

As a result, we sought to move the most important decisions made on behalf of students closer to students and into the hands of professional classroom teachers. Because of this focus, we won a significant opportunity for teachers and support staff to be integrally involved in their school restructuring when it has to occur, rather than forcing them to sit and watch it happen to their students and their school community. We won the opportunity to have a serious discussion about site-governed schools in our district, which will bring much-needed, community-specific conversations about what is best for students directly to the teachers who serve them. We won the ability to create a comprehensive, ‘full-spectrum’ peer assistance and review program that will substantially improve the support teachers get to remain effective as well as strengthening the achievement of tenure process during the three-year probationary period.

We reject the notion that our recent contract settlement was little more than a myopic agreement on wages. Our contract settlement signaled an opportunity to begin to trust teachers with decisions made about teaching and learning. Our very modest wage increases, despite the public and persistent pressure to freeze our salary and benefits, merely begin to recognize the additional responsibilities we have to our students. The decision-making agreed to offers an opportunity to continue steering the ship for our profession and the students we serve.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tentative Agreement for Teachers

The Values guiding our negotiating work:
• The most important work in education occurs between educator and student
• Effective decision-making in education must arise from educators’ professional practice
• By ensuring that educators are valued and that teaching is a sustainable profession, our union helps deliver excellent education to all learners

With these goals in mind, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers achieved the following in our 2009 contract negotiations:
*A starting salary of $40,000+ for beginning teachers in 2010
*Stronger standards for achievement of tenure, both in additional administrative observations and in the development of a full-spectrum peer assistance and review program (see below).
*Moved significant decision-making into our professional hands:

Full-spectrum Peer Assistance and Review
The union successfully negotiated the development of a “full-spectrum” peer assistance and review program. Our PAR program will recognize teaching as a profession of life-long learning and move away from the deficit-based thinking about teacher evaluation. The St. Paul PAR program will be developed to offer support in the traditional peer assistance and review areas by offering a more comprehensive and thorough achievement of tenure program as well as offer assistance to teachers identified as struggling in addition to offering support for teachers who self-identify or anticipate difficulties in a new or returning assignment and want to be supported in order to prevent failing. The St. Paul PAR program will also have significant opportunities for already strong teachers to explore new professional pathways (such as becoming a Master teacher in the CareerTeacher program), challenges (such as earning National Board Certification), and other opportunities to enhance their professionalism and/or give back to the profession (training to become a mentor, for example.) Just as good teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of every learner, our peer assistance and review program will differentiate to meet the needs of every teacher and be an asset to the profession.

Transforming our schools through restructuring
The union successfully negotiated a comprehensive process for school restructuring when restructuring is called for by No Child Left Behind or by the Board of Education. The restructured school will have a complete “Election to Work” agreement presented to staff by February 15th the year before the proposed restructuring that will be developed cooperatively with the staff and mutually approved by the union and the district that explicitly outlines:
• The application and selection process for staff, if there is to be one
• The vision and expected instructional program of the school
• The hours of instruction and length of the school day as well as the expected degree of flexibility that will be required of the staff
• The length of the school year and the school calendar
• The expected length of time teachers may be required to be present in the school outside of the school’s instructional day
• Any additional compensation program that will apply to the particular Restructured School that is different from the standard compensation schedule.
Further, contract language was secured that would require an annual review of restructured schools to determine the success of the restructuring and to identify practices and approaches that should be duplicated or avoided.

Site-governed Schools
The union also won a statement of intent on Site-governed schools that will be added to the contract recognizing the extraordinary opportunity the Minnesota Site-governed school statute (123B.045) offers to create innovative school environments better designed for individual school populations. The district agreed to form a committee to begin exploring the opportunity this new legislation presents for our students immediately upon ratification of the contract to report and recommend to the superintendent and the SPFT Executive Board as soon as possible, but no later than May 1, 2011.

Thank You
The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers could not have won such comprehensive professional contract language if it wasn’t for the significant support, ideas and mentoring of our fellow local teachers unions. We owe a great deal of debt to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the Toledo Federation of Teachers, the Rochester Federation of Teachers, the New Haven Federation of Teachers, the Hillsborough (FL) Classroom Teachers Association, and the leaders of the AFT Teachers Program and Policy Council. We are indebted to our state union Education Minnesota for their support of our members and our national union the American Federation of Teachers for their belief in our ideas. Finally and notably, we are grateful to our members in St. Paul for trusting us to negotiate a contract on behalf of them, the students we serve, and the profession to which we’re dedicated.