Special Victims Unit

Teacher "realignment" threatens special ed in Minneapolis

That pretty much describes Bill Scripps and dozens of other teachers being realigned into special education. "We never had any warnings from the union or the district that we might be told to teach other fields and take refresher classes and think about our jobs," Scripps says. "When the union told me the law was the law and there was nothing I could do, I was stunned."

On July 28, Scripps and 26 other teachers filed a lawsuit in the Minnesota Court of Appeals against the MPS, alleging that the district's realignment process was too unreasonable and arbitrary to fit the guidelines of the state's teacher tenure laws. Nearly two weeks later, teachers and parents packed an August 10 meeting of the Minneapolis School Board, imploring board members to halt the administration's realignment plan. One teacher said of her imminent transfer to special education, "I'm not saying I can't do it; I'm saying I don't want to do it." Another teacher was similarly forthright, claiming she had stopped teaching special ed by choice and didn't want to go back. "I've served my time," she concluded.

A mother bemoaned the layoff of the untenured special ed teacher who had taught her autistic child. By contrast, she said, the realigned teachers had little or no experience with the new methods of identifying and teaching autistic students. Some teachers pointed out that many realigned teachers could drop their special ed license and have enough seniority to return to regular education classrooms next year anyway, increasing the likelihood that special ed students would have to acclimate themselves to a new instructor yet again. Still others predicted that the chaos generated by realignment would compel previously committed and caring parents to leave the school district for private or charter schools.

Band (teacher) on the run: Bill Scripps is one of Minneapolis's newly minted special ed instructors
Richard Fleischman
Band (teacher) on the run: Bill Scripps is one of Minneapolis's newly minted special ed instructors

Gregg Corwin, the attorney representing the 27 teachers contesting the realignment process, also addressed the school board that day. He demanded to know why the district's attorneys were fighting his motion to expedite the case so that the matter could be decided, up or down, in a prompt fashion. He stated that the largest realignment approved by the court had involved the movement of just three teachers, versus the dozens who would be affected by the district's plan.

During the entire course of an emotionally searing two-hour board meeting, not a single speaker from the general public rose to defend realignment or rebut the arguments against it. In fact, new MPS superintendent Thandiwe Peebles, attending her first board meeting on the job, was moved enough to declare her support for the anti-alignment contingent, a surprising, ostensibly spontaneous outburst that generated raucous applause at the time but has since yielded little in the way of demonstrable support or relief to those fighting the process.

Meanwhile, the six school board members in attendance wore chronically long faces and unanimously concurred that this realignment thing was a terribly unfortunate matter. They also unanimously acceded to the legal opinion offered up by the district's lawyers--the massive realignment was the only course of action consistent with the teacher tenure laws, and halting the process would do nothing more but pile up fruitless legal expenses battling the teachers' union in court.

But in the wake of that board meeting, it was also clear that realignment is a brewing public relations disaster that stands to taint both the union and the district in the public's view. Four days later, on August 14, Corwin and the 27 teachers he represents received a proposal that would require the teachers' union and the school district to jointly ask the state legislature for more flexibility under the tenure law when negotiating teacher layoffs. In return, the 27 teachers fighting realignment would be required to drop their lawsuit.

This proposed deal notwithstanding, MPS general counsel Allen Giles has claimed that "we have made no settlement offer." Yet the wording in the--well, call it a proposal to discontinue a legal matter--specifically states that the terms of the deal had been cleared with Giles. The aggrieved teachers were still considering a counterproposal as City Pages went to press.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed cost to the school district, Bill Scripps and at least 139 other realigned teachers have been receiving intensive training for their new positions over the past two weeks, and will also receive some mentoring assistance throughout the school year. Barring some dramatic last-minute change in plans, at least 107 of the 660 special education teachers assigned to nurture the neediest and most vulnerable group of school children in the district are (by training, temperament, or both) relatively ill-equipped to take up the task.

"Who is going to suffer in this learning curve?" asks Center for Education Law attorney Amy Goetz. "Teachers don't like to work in an environment where they don't feel up to snuff--nobody does. So they won't be happy and students won't be happy being taught by teachers who are unhappy and ineffective."

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