On Monday a right-wing legal advocacy group, Judicial Watch, filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis Public Schools, the school board and Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox, on behalf of Minneapolis resident Deborah Jane Clap. Clap is neither an employee of nor a parent of children at Minneapolis Public Schools.

The lawsuit alleges that language in the new labor contract with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers violates Minnesota’s Equal Protection Guarantee. The contract language in question is in Article 15, titled “Protections for Educators of Color.” The contract states:

“The purpose of the language referencing this Article (15.1.2i) is to remedy the continuing effects of past discrimination by the District. Past discrimination by the District disproportionately impacted the hiring of underrepresented teachers in the District, as compared to the relevant labor market and the community, and resulted in a lack of diversity of teachers. Language which refers to this Article will no longer be in effect once the teachers in the District reflect the diversity of the labor market and the community served by the District.”

The protections outlined in Article 15 include exceptions to “last in first out” layoffs for teachers who are part of underrepresented groups. These provisions won’t be implemented until Spring 2023. There are additional exceptions for teachers who are part of specific programs, including immersion, Montessori, racially identifiable schools, and graduates of the district’s Grow Your Own program who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

Language to protect teachers from underrepresented groups from seniority-based separations was first proposed in 1978 by the district when it was under supervision of Federal District Court Judge Larson to desegregate its students and faculty. The district was facing declining enrollment, and because many of the newest teachers hired by the district were educators of color, these teachers would be the first to be laid off under the seniority-based contract provisions at the time. The district asked Judge Larson for an exception to seniority-based layoffs. The Minnesota Federation of Teachers filed an amicus brief opposing the exceptions. Judge Larson ruled against the district maintaining the seniority-based layoff provisions.

Exemptions to last in, first out layoffs for underrepresented educators were also considered during negotiations between the district and the union during the 2017-2019 contract cycle. This is when language was included to exempt Grow Your Own graduates from seniority-based layoffs.

In November 2018, the district released a Human Resources report that identified seniority-based layoff provisions as one of several barriers to the district diversifying its teacher workforce so that it more closely reflected the district’s student body.

Currently, for every 31 students that identifies as BIPOC, there is one teacher who also identifies as such. For white students and teachers, that ratio is 1 to 4.8.

A significant body of research has shown that BIPOC students have improved academic and disciplinary outcomes when they have educators who look like them.

In 2019, local education advocates, including the Advancing Equity Coalition, began to organize around exemptions to seniority-based layoffs as one of many changes the district should undertake to create a more equitable workplace and learning environment for students and teachers of color. Many school board members who were elected in 2020, including Adriana Cerillo and Sharon El-Amin, were out-spoken about making exemptions to seniority a priority for the district.

During negotiations for the 2021-2023 contract, which began in February of 2021, both the educators’ union and the district’s negotiating team members stated that it was a priority to include language in the new contract that would protect teachers from underrepresented groups from seniority-based layoffs and excessing. An agreement wasn’t reached before the Spring 2022 budget tie-out when the district reported that 50 teachers of color were excessed. Excessing refers to reducing staff at a particular school because of a reduction in available positions.

As reported by Southwest Voices in March, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers negotiators removed its proposal for exemptions to seniority-based hiring decisions from the negotiations. A group of BIPOC union members, primarily at Henry High School, became aware of this, and began organizing within the union to move the exemptions language back into the union’s proposals. The Henry educators have alleged they faced harassment, name-calling, and intimidation as a result of their organizing efforts.

According to the transcript of a meeting on March 17 between Henry educators and union leadership, union president Greta Callahan responded to questions about the removal of the union’s proposals for exemption language, saying, “This is off the table right now.”

Ultimately, the union brought these seniority exemptions back to their proposals on March 21. After a three week long strike, district and union negotiators reached a tentative agreement at the end of March, which included the seniority exemptions in Article 15. MFT teacher chapter and ESP chapter members voted by a substantial majority to approve the tentative agreement and a return to work agreement.

Right-wing media outlets in Minnesota, and then nationally, began writing about the seniority-based exemptions in mid-August. While they have attempted to create controversy by claiming the exemptions are racially discriminatory, locally, the exemptions have not been viewed as controversial for these reasons.

Rather, locally, the controversy has been among the political left. After the state legislature removed last in, first out language in 2017 from its default policy on how school districts should handle layoffs, protecting last in, first out provisions became a priority for educator unions in Minnesota. Seniority-based layoffs are viewed by the unions as a way to protect more experienced teachers who are paid more when districts reduce staff for budgetary reasons. However, because of the historic discrimination against, and underrepresentation of educators of color and Indigenous educators, others on the political left have viewed last in, first out as an obstacle to diversification of the educator workforce in Minnesota, particularly in a district like Minneapolis Public Schools where the teacher workforce is significantly less diverse than the students served by the district.

Arguably, it was internal pressure on the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers from a group of predominantly BIPOC union members, public support built by BIPOC-led local education advocates, and the support of the predominantly BIPOC school board that pushed the union and the district to include contract language that will begin to address the historical discrimination and underrepresentation of educators of color and Indigenous educators in the city’s public schools.