Minneapolis teachers and supporters march on the afternoon of March 8, 2022, during the teachers' strike.

A national conservative interest group is backing a lawsuit filed by a Minneapolis property owner who alleges that a policy protecting teachers of color from layoffs in the city’s school district discriminates against white teachers. 

The lawsuit filed this week by Deborah Jane Clapp alleges that a provision in the agreement between the Minneapolis Federation Teachers and Minneapolis Public Schools that ended a three-week strike earlier this year violates the equal protection clause in the state’s constitution. The policy, set to go in effect next spring, exempts teachers from “underrepresented populations” from seniority rules during layoffs. 

Clapp, who does not work for the school district, is described in the lawsuit as a Minneapolis resident suing on the basis of her standing as a property taxpayer with “the right to challenge unlawful expenditure of public money.” Minneapolis attorney Daniel Rosen and Washington D.C. attorney Michael Bekesha, a lawyer for the right-wing organization Judicial Watch, are representing Clapp.

The lawsuit comes after several national conservative media outlets published critical stories about the protections this month, eventually leading to coverage in mainstream media outlets like Good Morning America.

Bekesha referred all questions to a spokesperson at Judicial Watch, who did not comment for this story before publication. A spokesperson for Minneapolis Public Schools declined to comment for this story, citing a district policy to not speak about pending lawsuits. 

Sahan Journal called two phone numbers listed to Clapp, but could not reach her. 

Teachers, union officials, and advocates criticized the lawsuit as an attempt to stir up outrage on an issue they say is not controversial locally. During negotiations, these protections were a top priority for the union, the school board, and teachers of color. At the end of a contentious strike, the protections represented one point that all sides agreed on. 

Increasing Minnesota’s teacher diversity also is a rare issue that has found bipartisan support at the legislature. Statewide, about 5 percent of teachers are people of color, while more than a third of Minnesota students are. In 2021, Minnesota’s politically divided legislature tripled funding for recruiting and retaining teachers of color. 

Lindsey West, a fifth-grade teacher at Clara Barton Community School who is currently on leave, said hearing about the lawsuit made her sigh and shake her head.

“I’m mostly speechless,” said West, who sits on the MFT Local 59’s executive board. “It’s such a waste of time and resources, and people are completely missing the point.” 

Teachers are most concerned about low pay and lack of support, West argued, and she emphasized that teachers of color like her are voluntarily leaving the district over these issues. West said the current union contract “started to lay the foundation” for retaining and recruiting teachers of color, which she said was the real issue. Exempting teachers of color from last in, first out layoff policies is a part of that, she said, as are contract provisions emphasizing mentorship for teachers of color and recruitment of new teachers from historically Black colleges and universities. 

More than two-thirds of Minneapolis Public Schools students are students of color, and roughly 20 percent of its teachers are teachers of color, said Greta Callahan, president of MFT59. 

Callahan said close to 200 teachers of color left or were fired from Minneapolis over the past two years, compared to 48 teachers of color who’ve been laid off in the past 15 years. 

The layoff protection language “wasn’t even a question” during negotiations for the new contract, Callahan said.

“This was just one way to stabilize the learning experience of our students who need to see themselves reflected in their educators,” Callahan said.

The language in the resulting contract appears under a section titled “Protections for Educators of Color.” It then lists layoff and job reassignment protections for teachers “from underrepresented populations,” which is not further defined. The contract also prioritizes underrepresented teachers who’ve been laid off for job reinstatement. 

“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,” the contract reads. 

The contract says these protections end once the racial makeup of teachers matches the racial makeup of students. 

Callahan said lawyers for both the union and the district wrote the language to ensure legal protection. But other districts have avoided similar protections for this very reason.

In 2020, Burnsville’s teacher union contract allowed the school board to create “staffing retention priorities” outside of the seniority-based layoff process, including recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Still, the district that spring laid off a number of teachers of color, including Qorsho Hassan. Qorsho was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year months later.

At the time, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage board chair Abigail Alt told Sahan Journal that her district opted not to make specific protections for teachers of color because it feared that doing so would expose it to lawsuits.

“State and federal law prohibits us from focusing on a protected class in the employment process,” she said at the time. “So while folks might like to think that the board priorities could be used to, say, protect a particular class of people—whether based on race or ability—that’s against the law and we simply can’t do that.”

But Callahan noted that other suburban districts have successfully implemented language similar to what Minneapolis settled on. 

The school district contracts in Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park have similar language in their contracts exempting teachers of color from last in, first out rules. But Minneapolis’s contract goes further, Callahan said, because it includes non-tenured positions in the exemptions. 

During strike negotiations, a coalition of local advocacy groups called Advancing Equity Coalition pushed for the exemption. Executive Director Kenneth Eban noted that both the union and school district publicly identified retaining and recruiting teachers of color as a priority during the strike.

“We saw the language in Robbinsdale and St. Louis Park, and wanted to make it known to both sides that there is a path forward here,” Eban said. 

Eban added that roughly 80 percent of the union membership is white and voted in favor of the contract.

The lawsuit against Minneapolis Public Schools also names interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox and the Minneapolis school board as defendants.

Additional reporting by Becky Dernbach.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...