In teacher contract talks, two views on class size
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, December 30, 2013 – Class size has emerged as a contentious issue in teacher contract talks in Minnesota’s largest school districts.
In Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis, unions have crafted proposals aimed at shrinking or capping the number of students in classrooms. They have argued smaller classes would help tackle stubborn achievement gaps, improve student behavior and attract families on a competitive education scene.
District negotiators have countered that such proposals are costly and questioned the power of class size alone to boost student achievement, especially beyond the early grades. In Minneapolis earlier this year, the district estimated that driving down class sizes significantly could cost about $63 million a year, which the union disputes.
In St. Paul, district leaders at first included the issue on a list of union proposals best discussed away from the contract negotiations table. But more recently, they have responded with a proposed one-year pilot project that would beef up staffing in several schools and bring in an outside evaluator to size up the results.
The district’s condition: The St. Paul Federation of Teachers must drop a class size grievance it filed last month as well as proposals to increase the ranks of support staff, such as nurses and counselors.
The union says the district’s counteroffer falls short; still, said federation President Mary Cathryn Ricker: “We’re getting a chance to discuss our priorities.”
Last week, the Anoka-Hennepin teacher’s union joined the St. Paul district and the Minneapolis union in enlisting a state mediator’s help to settle two-year contracts. Contract talks become closed to the public when mediators join in.
In St. Paul, the district and union are also still discussing a two-year compensation package for teachers. The union wants the district to honor built-in increases for seniority and education, a 2.5-percent raise on average. It’s also asking for a $1,500 cost-of-living raise in 2013-14 and $1,000 the following year as well as an additional 1-percent raise each year for the most veteran teachers.
The district has countered with a proposal that will keep cost-of-living raises to $500 for most teachers.
St. Paul educators make $68,500 on average at the elementary level and $67,400 for secondary teachers.
The St. Paul district and its the union have reached tentative agreements on six issues, including proposals on sick leave and lesson plan procedures.
Superintendent Valeria Silva attended a recent 12-hour negotiating session and told her school board the tone was constructive: “It was a pretty positive meeting, I felt.”
The district set acceptable class size ranges under Silva’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan: 22 to 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, for instance, or 25 to 30 in fourth and fifth grade.
Among its 29 proposals, the federation argued for making the upper limit of these ranges a hard cap no class would exceed.
Meanwhile, the union has filed a complaint saying the district has violated an addendum to the 2011-13 contract. That agreement says that starting this school year, district class size averages would not exceed the lower end of district ranges — if district finances allow it.
Although the agreement does not mention last year’s successful levy referendum, the federation says that’s what the budgetary caveat refers to. The grievance calls on the district to hire staff to reduce class sizes and send a letter of apology to families.
If the district and union cannot resolve a grievance, a state arbitrator might step in to issue a ruling.
“We don’t have 500 classrooms in our grievance; it’s a very manageable number,” said Ricker. “This means solving the problem where it exists would be manageable.”
District leaders have said more than 96 percent of classrooms fall within its class size ranges, including among the district’s 795 elementary classrooms. St. Paul hired 32 additional teachers and aides since the start of the school year to address class size.
“I cannot agree more that class size matters,” Silva said.
But she and other officials argue it’s important to stay flexible and balance the goals of small class sizes and a healthy budget. They’ve estimated the union’s class size proposal would cost more than $25 million a year. They’ve said hard caps could reduce access to the district’s most popular schools and to popular high school electives. And they’ve reminded the school board that research has primarily documented consistent gains from very small class sizes in the early grades.
The district’s counteroffer would shrink class sizes next fall only in four elementary, two middle and two high schools. Those schools would get full-time nurses, counselors, librarians and social workers — the support staff the union says each school needs to serve “the whole child” in a district where more than 70 percent of students live in poverty.
St. Paul would continue the pilot beyond the first year only if it sees growth in test scores, attendance, discipline or other metrics.
In return, the union would have to drop its grievance and a number of its proposals, including one calling on the district to opt out of state standardized tests.
Changes the district suggested to the 2012 agreement would weaken its push for smaller class sizes, which allow teachers to give students more personal attention, the union says.
MINNEAPOLIS STICKING POINT
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers also revisited the issue of class size — a key sticking point in its contract negotiations two years ago — in this round of talks. The union has recommended classes as small at 16 students in second grade and 20 in the fourth grade, as well as workload caps for social workers, counselors and special education professionals.
The Minneapolis federation has argued the changes would ensure more meaningful and timely feedback to students, less behavior problems and increased parent engagement. Based on negotiation minutes from this past summer, though, the district resisted the proposal, arguing quality teaching has a much greater effect on student achievement than class size.
When the two sides entered mediation this fall at the federation’s request, they agreed to discuss the talks only in brief joint updates. So it’s not clear if the issue is still on the table and played a part in a recent decision to extend talks into February.
Meanwhile, the Anoka- Hennepin teacher’s union put forth what President Julie Blaha deems its most detailed and formal proposal on class size in recent memory. The union suggested that teachers whose classrooms host more than 24 students in elementaries, 25 in middle schools and 29 in high schools would earn 20 percent extra pay.
The prospect of paying teachers extra would serve as a powerful incentive to keep class sizes below the caps, Blaha said.
“We presented this proposal with the idea that nobody would get this extra pay,” said Blaha, noting Minnesota has among the nation’s highest class sizes on average.
As St. Paul did at first, the Anoka-Hennepin district has argued the proposal does not belong at the negotiations table, which should be reserved for discussion of wages, benefits and work rules. Duluth educators have also proposed caps on the number of students teachers serve and extra pay if the district exceeds them.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, says class size figures in more metro contract talks this year than in any recent negotiation rounds. With a recent boost in state funding and the repayment of funds Minnesota owed districts, educators feel they can now request such an investment.
Some districts might well move to shrink classes. But district negotiators will likely continue to resist enshrining class sizes in teacher contracts, Croonquist said.
“School board members and administrators feel very strongly contract negotiations are not to appropriate place to have this discussion,” he said.