Special Victims Unit

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

By all accounts, Bill Scripps has been a superb, even inspirational band teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools for the past 24 years. When budget cutbacks caused the schools where Scripps teaches to consider dropping band as an elective course two years ago, parents sprang to action. At Seward Montessori, they solicited private donations and organized a carnival and silent auction to raise $15,000 in each of the past two years. Parents at Pillsbury and Bryn Mawr also chipped in money and agitated for their school officials to retain Scripps.

"Black kids, especially black boys, think Bill is cool. For that matter, we all do. I really believe he is the reason why some kids have remained in school," says Carla Bates, the past president of the parent-teacher-student organization at Seward. Last year, Scripps taught 300 children, and says he could have doubled that number if enough instruments had been available.

Yet despite this clear-cut success story, Scripps will find himself teaching special education at Southwest High School when Minneapolis students return to classes next week. It doesn't matter that he hasn't taught high school in 14 years and has never taught special education. Because Scripps picked up a secondary license to teach special ed nearly 20 years ago--"because I thought understanding kids with special needs in my classroom would make me a better teacher"--he is one of the 140 to 190 MPS teachers who have been "realigned" out of teaching in their chosen specialties without regard for the quality of their past performance.

Like a dispiriting blend of Kafka and Alice in Wonderland, teacher realignment is a phenomenon that invokes the state's teacher tenure laws to deny many of Minneapolis's tenured teachers the opportunity to remain in their preferred areas of instruction. The process was triggered by the need for massive layoffs in the Minneapolis schools due to state budget cuts and declining student enrollment. After reviewing their contracts with the teachers' union and the aforementioned tenure laws, MPS attorneys concluded that the district was required to bump tenured teachers into other subjects they were licensed to teach--even if the instructor had no experience or desire to teach in that subject--if the move allowed another tenured teacher with less seniority to avoid being laid off.

Although the realignment process obviously discomfits Scripps and deprives students at Seward, Pillsbury, and Bryn Mawr of his expertise as a band instructor, the biggest victims are likely to be special education students in the MPS. (Personal disclosure: My son is one of those students.)

Even under ideal circumstances, teaching special education is a complex endeavor. But the chronic refusal of the federal government to pay in full for the special education services it mandates, combined with recent cutbacks in state special ed funding, has made the job increasingly thankless. Consequently, special ed teachers in MPS and elsewhere tend to burn out faster, generating a higher turnover rate and less tenure and seniority in their ranks than in other areas of instruction. It follows, then, that many of the teacher realignments will involve laying off untenured special ed teachers and assigning tenured regular ed teachers with a license to teach special education in their place. One special education official in the district has stated that this will be the case for 107 of the 140 realigned teachers. But that may be a conservative figure, given published reports that as many as 192 teachers will be realigned.

Defenders of the realignment process like to point out that it will spare dozens of experienced, tenured teachers from being laid off. They also note that there will be at least 25 more teachers licensed to teach special education in the Minneapolis schools this fall than last year, when the district had to get 48 variances from the state to use unlicensed special ed teachers in their classrooms. But that sounds good only if one assumes that a "licensed" special ed teacher is necessarily a qualified special ed teacher. And the evidence doesn't support that assumption.

Minnesota teachers must renew their licenses every five years. According to Doug Gray, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education, the state recommends that teachers complete at least 125 hours of continuing education during that time, including at least 30 hours specifically related to each subject area they are licensed to teach. But Gray admits there are no teeth to these recommendations; the decisions on a teacher's license renewal are made at the local level, by a panel of his or her peers. For the panel to deny the renewal of a teacher's license, particularly in an area like special ed where there is already a shortage of licensed instructors, is very rare.

Ironically, special education also happens to be one of the younger and more dynamic fields in teaching, requiring steady vigilance from any instructor hoping to keep abreast of practices and trends. Indeed, members of Congress knew this would be the case back in 1973 when they enacted IDEA, the landmark federal legislation that established the legal guidelines for our modern approach to special education.  

"There are tried-and-true, research-based methods of teaching kids with unique learning needs which pour out of higher education institutions year after year," says Amy Goetz, an attorney who worked for the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, Legal Aid, and the Minnesota Disability Law Center before co-founding the private Center for Education Law in St. Paul. "So if you haven't taught in the field for the past 10 or 20 years, you have missed a whole lot of that research and knowledge of those promising methods."

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.

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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