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President Jeff Wensing: Grassroots Making the Difference

Recent election results have frustrated many of us in public education over the past seven or eight years. Whether it be your local school board, state senator, state representative, or the governor, it seems as though the bulk of the laws and state mandates have made our professional lives more difficult. Some of the challenges include reduced state funding, OTES, attempts at privatization, resident educator requirements, and an overabundance of state testing. One can argue these examples do not enhance the day-to-day education of a student. In fact, it can be argued that these are distractions that dilute the educational process. Some locals across the state were frustrated to the point where the local decided to create positive change at the most basic level—their individual Board of Education. As President of the Parma Education Association (PEA), this is exactly the task our membership desired.

On May 26, 2015, the Parma City School District’s Board of Education voted 5-0 to impose a contract upon the members of PEA. The bargaining process was difficult and lasted nearly 2-1/2 years from 2013 to 2015. During that time, the administration did the typical divide-and-conquer which included blaming PEA for the lack of progress. PEA leadership recognized the division in the Association and took advantage of an offer from OEA to help conduct a listening tour of all 15 buildings in Parma from late 2014 to early 2015. Approximately 500 conversations were conducted with PEA members and the data was compiled.

After the contract was imposed the PEA membership had a difficult decision to make. The PEA membership chose to work under the imposed contract in lieu of striking. Moving forward, based on the data from the listening tour, it was clear that the PEA membership wanted three things from their Association:

    1. 1. communicate more effectively with the members,
    1. 2. engage the community in a positive manner, and
    1. 3. have a better working relationship with the Board of Education.

PEA leadership promised the membership that they would work to accomplish all three requests. However, in order to work with the school board more effectively, PEA promised its members they would attempt to seek, endorse, and elect three pro-public education candidates to the Board of Education in 2017. Over the course of the next two years, PEA attempted to earn the trust of its members by accomplishing the three goals set forth by the membership in the listening tour.

Phase One: Communication. (1) PEA members receive regular updates via email from the President. (2) Building reps hold regular 10-minute meetings in the home school following PEA meetings. (3) Organize events for new educators. (4) Created PEA Facebook page called “PEA Community” which launched PEA’s new logo and highlights positive accomplishments of PEA members and the teaching profession.

Phase Two: Community. (1) PEA conducted a series of community focus groups. (2) Organized a rally for public education in May 2017. Rallies were held in front of all 15 buildings before school, and educators walked in their buildings together. (3) Participated in the 2017 Parma Inde-pendence Day parade. (4) PEA had a table at the 2017 PCSD Back to School kickoff event. (5) Attended the Labor Day Festival in Parma at James Day Park. (6) Publicized PEA’s annual Thanksgiving food drive which feeds approximately 70 needy families.

Phase Three: School Board. (1) In April 2016 at a combined meeting of Executive Committee members and building representatives, OEA’s Dan Ramos facilitated a power mapping activity that identified the qualities PEA wanted a Board of Education candidate to possess. (2) PEA leadership established relationships with the individuals as defined by the power mapping. (3) In early 2017, Dan Ramos and PEA developed a timeline through Election Day, November 7, 2017. (4) PEA invited OAPSE leaders to join the process in spring 2017. (5) PEA and OAPSE jointly screened six out of seven Board of Education candidates in July 2017 and jointly endorsed three quality candidates. (6) In August PEA announced the three endorsed candidates at the district’s opening day meeting.

It was time for the rubber to hit the road. Did PEA do enough to accomplish the three goals set forth by the membership? Did PEA earn enough trust in order for the membership to support PEA’s three endorsed candidates? In summary over 300 PEA members donated over $4,000 to the endorsed candidates’ campaign, staffed three nights of phone banking made available by North Shore AFL-CIO, building representatives and Executive Committee members wrote 635 postcards to OEA members living in the local community requesting support of our endorsed candidates, approximately 100 members participated in knock-and-drops with campaign literature, 125 members placed yard signs in their front yards (we had more requests than signs!), and PEA members worked the polls on November 7 before and after their contracted work day. In short, all three PEA-endorsed candidates won in a land slide.

Upon reflection, the data from the listening tour was the key component. The data informed PEA leadership as to what the membership wanted from their association. I believe PEA’s work over the prior two years built trust with members. As a result, approximately 500 members out of 775 members participated in one way or another to support PEA’s endorsed candidates. This total doesn’t include the members who simply had conversations with their family, friends, and neighbors.

I share this with you because the story in Parma is not unique. In fact PEA leadership was inspired by other locals who created positive change for their members by electing pro-public education candidates. With a functional Board and a new superintendent who fosters shared leadership, PEA believes educators and students will once again be valued and respected.

In education, the finish line is consistently moving. As one goal is met, another challenge arises. However, due to our successful grassroots efforts across the state, I am excited and hopeful this momentum will continue into the election season of 2018.

United we stand,

Jeff Wensing
NEOEA President

Published in our Winter Issue 2018 of News & Views.

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