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Annual MEA conference raises teachers' union, testing issues

The Minnesota teachers' union recently held its annual 2-day conference -- commonly known as the Minnesota Education Association, or MEA -- at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

The event, hosted by Education Minnesota, drew about 8,000 educators and featured keynote speaker Diane Ravitch. Ravitch has written about the potentially harmful effects of applying a corporate business model to education reforms. Among other themes, Ravitch spoke out against the overuse of standardized testing and using scores to evaluate teachers -- both of which are often opposed by teachers' unions.

Minnesota readers will hardly be surprised that tenure and teachers' unions are a perennial topic in education reform discussions. However, even the most detailed collective bargaining agreement between a teachers' union and a school district may occasionally require a court to interpret its terms. A recent federal lawsuit provides a case study.

In the suit, a high school teacher who had received excellent performance reviews claimed he was denied tenure because he had used protected unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for a gall bladder surgery. Under the terms of the CBA negotiated between the teachers' union and the school district, absenteeism was one of 24 factors used in determining tenure. However, the teacher claimed the school's denial of his bid for tenure was retaliation.

Unfortunately, the teacher lost at the district court level because of a technicality in the FMLA. To be eligible, an employee not only must have worked for his or her employer for at least 12 months, but must also have worked at least 1,250 hours for that employer within the last 12 months. In this case, the teacher was 3 hours short of that qualifying accrual: He had worked only 1,247 hours during the year before his leave. Therefore, the district court judge ruled that the teacher's leave was not protected under the FMLA, and the school couldn't be liable under a retaliation theory.

The case illustrates that Minnesota employees may still have questions about whether unpaid leave is protected by the FMLA. For that reason, employees may wish to consult with an attorney before taking unpaid leave to attend to family care matters.

Source: Pioneer Press, "Teachers' conference speaker: 'Teaching to the test' is ruining public education," Megan Boldt, Oct. 18, 2012 

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