Protesters force Minneapolis school board to rehire teachers of color

Cynthia Brown reacts to the school board's vote to continue her employment at Hmong International Academy.

Cynthia Brown reacts to the school board's vote to continue her employment at Hmong International Academy.

Eduardo Salgado Diaz is a military veteran who has taught in Japan and conducted geological research in Chile. He has lived on food stamps, and has been stopped by police and questioned about his citizenship. He is bilingual.

For these reasons, Diaz believes that he is an invaluable teacher at Andersen United Community School, an elementary and middle school in Phillips where 53 percent of the students are Hispanic and 35 percent are African American, yet only 17 percent of staff are people of color.

This is Diaz's second year at Andersen, where he currently teaches English language learners (ELL). Last year he taught 6th grade social studies -- though he did not have a license to do it -- because he is the only bilingual middle school teacher. He needs only one more year of experience to become a tenured Minneapolis teacher with union protections.

Last month the district published a list of staff who would be asked to return for the 2017-18 school year. Diaz was listed under ELL. He thought he was safe.

A few weeks later, he was called into the principal's office and told that administrators were going to recommend that he not be rehired after all. As a probationary teacher, such a recommendation meant he would be blacklisted from future job openings in the district. Diaz was given one alternative. Resign and he might be invited back someday.

He was told that he hadn't made the sort of progress they wanted to see in a second-year teacher, because his lessons lacked depth and were too repetitive.

Diaz found this last-minute performance evaluation unfair. ELL students, who make up a vast portion of Andersen, require repetition because they are learning English at the same time as the rest of the coursework.

The only reason he was fired, he believes, is Minneapolis Public Schools' budget gap. In February, new Superintendent Ed Graff announced that the district faced a $28 million shortfall, and that belts would be tightened across the district. Some staff positions would be eliminated, and union teachers reshuffled to fill the vacancies left by probationary teachers who would suffer the first cuts.

"I do not mean to say that the reason I was let go was because of my skin color, but I find it hard to think that MPS would want to get rid of a male, veteran, immigrant, natively bilingual Spanish speaker," Diaz says.

The Social Justice Education Movement, an organization that advocates for teachers of color, discovererd that of the 62 probationary teachers who were fired or resigned from Andersen over the past decade, more than a quarter were teachers of color.

"In the long-standing pattern of staff of color unfairly being pushed out of Minneapolis Public Schools, stories like this are an all-too familiar occurrence," according to a statement by the group. "For a school district that says it is committed to racial equity, it is strange that teachers of color are consistently being disproportionately pushed out of the school district."

The organization identified six teachers of color in addition to Diaz who were fired last month.

They include Lor Vang, a social worker at Hmong International Academy, who says he was fired for insubordination after he refused to fabricate a special education student's evaluation data.

Fellow staffer May Yang claims she was retaliated against for defending Vang. Yet another Hmong International Academy teacher, Cynthia Brown, says she was unfairly evaluated for her work over the past three years by a new principal who had been at the school less than three years.

Michelle Barnes and Moriah Stephens, teachers at River Bend school for students with emotional, behaviorial, and mental health diagnoses, say they were targeted for protesting administrative practices of withholding hot lunch from kids who misbehaved.

Tuesday evening, about 100 protesters forced their way into an over-capacity school board meeting to demand the rehiring of teachers and to ban the use of withholding food as a punishment.

More than an hour of public comments reprimanding the board for the district's "inherent racism" ensued. Rules were suspended as protesters continuously booed, hissed, and interrupted board members after the public comment period had ended. The agenda was changed twice to allow for a discussion and vote on the teachers' employment status, which had previously been excluded from business because their resignations had already been accepted by their individual schools.

Protesters argued that there should be no cuts to teachers of color until staff demographics matched those of students, that jobs should not be revoked after teachers had already been invited back for the coming year, and that school resource officers should be fired to conserve funds.

With the exception of board member KerryJo Felder, who supported protesters yet recused herself from voting due to a conflict of interest, other board members expressed reservations about making hiring decisions based on a protest and an hour-long public testimony.

"This requires a deeper dive and hearing both sides," said board member Don Samuels. "We will follow some kind of policy or normed practice that is dependable under all circumstances, and not subject to political pressure. ... If the board can have the confidence to make a decision that can hold up under the scrutiny of law and practice, then we can come to just ends."

Protesters shouted over Samuels, saying that the board does not have the community's trust to delay a decision.

In the end, the board agreed to vote on the teachers' employment, passing a motion acknowledging that they were wrongfully pushed out due to racism and for advocating for students' rights, instead of budgetary issues. All the teachers will be recommended for rehire.

It is unclear whether a new policy will be created to ban the use of withholding food as punishment because this policy already exists. It is also unclear what will happen to other probationary teachers of color, and white teachers, who were asked to resign this year but did not go public with their cases.