by Mary Ellen Flannery
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Who sets your salary? Who hires your principal? Who decides how many students will sit in your classrooms (21 or, oh no, maybe 36?) and whether those kids will have new textbooks or district-provided iPads?
It’s not that guy in the White House, nor typically the men and women sent to Tallahassee, Madison, Olympia, and other state capitols. For the answer, look a little closer to home.
In most places, locally elected school board members make the decisions that impact the lives of educators and students every day. School board members approve budgets, sign employee contracts, hire and fire school-based administrators, decide whether to privatize the services of say, custodians or school bus drivers, purchase new technology, approve charter school contracts, explore merit-pay systems, expel students, draw school boundary lines, spend the money on new classrooms or school facilities, stand up to standardized testing, and more.
That’s why NEA-affiliated local and state unions are focusing their minds and resources on the names at the bottom of this fall’s electoral ballots. “We want to elect people who will do right on the issues that are most important to our members and our schools,” says Ed Martin, public affairs director for the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). And that means state and local NEA leaders must take a powerful role in shaping pro-student, pro-educator boards.
These days, it’s not enough to send questionnaires to folks who say they want to serve, and then share the feedback with members. With the stakes higher than ever for public school educators and students, NEA affiliates are actively reaching out to the most qualified people—often educators—and training them for office.
Stepping up to the Political Plate
That includes Debbie Bernauer, a recently retired kindergarten and first-grade teacher who is running for school board in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights School District in northern Ohio—just a few miles from where Strongsville, Ohio, teachers struck for eight weeks last spring.
“Last year, negotiations [in Brecksville-Broadview] were more contentious than ever, and we really came very, very close to having a strike. We need to have somebody in there who understands what we need in the classroom, and brings that perspective to the table,” Bernauer said.
Over 36 years, Bernauer figures she’s taught about 1,000 Brecksville kids to read and write. It doesn’t take much more than first-grade math skills to compute the implications for this November’s election. Those 1,000 students have moms and dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some have voting-age children of their own. They all know that Mrs. Bernauer is dedicated to making sure every child has the opportunity to learn, and that every educator has the tools they need to make it happen.
On a recent summer day, Bernauer takes her campaign to the Broadview Heights Home Days on the Green, a neighborhood party replete with cotton candy on sticks and local candidates with clipboards. It’s the perfect opportunity for her to collect the required signatures to get her name on November’s ballot.
A few feet from the raffle ticket tent, Bernauer scores the flourishing signature of a local gifted teacher who tells her about the 35 kids in his class last year. Nearby, the Ferris wheel slows to a stop and Bernauer’s former principal lifts the safety bar and pops off, exclaiming “I’d love to sign for you!”
Bernauer runs into the mayor, whose endorsement she’s already won. “Come walk the subdivisions with me!” he urges. A few feet from the Ohio Cornhole Club’s booth, she sees her elementary school’s former custodian who has been retired for 17 years. “Oscar!” Bernauer exclaims.
This isn’t the idle wandering of a political newbie. Although Bernauer never has run for local office before, she has served as president of the local association. She also worked tirelessly during the successful battle to defeat Ohio Senate Bill 5, an anti-union law that would have dismantled the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public sector workers.
Still, making the transition from activist to candidate requires support, and Bernauer got exactly that from the Ohio Education Association. During two days of intensive campaign training provided by OEA, with campaign experts from Wellstone and the Progressive Majority on hand, Bernauer studied fundraising strategies, media relations, use of voter data and more. She learned how to create opportunities for people to support her: “Knock on doors with me,” she tells former colleagues. “Let’s have a neighborhood coffee,” she urges old friends.
Turning toward the parking lot at Home Days, Bernauer crosses paths with one more teacher. Hugs are shared. Children are admired. One more signature is acquired. Taking her arm, Bernaurer’s former colleague says, “Debbie, you know we’re all behind you—and that’s a powerful thing. That’s good power!”
There is no doubt that educator power can swing a school board toward the interests of educators and students. Consider the recent good work of the Omaha Education Association.
Last January, Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature proposed a measure to dramatically change the structure of Omaha’s school board by creating nine new school board positions. A good thing! The previous board had lost the confidence of educators and—obviously—state legislators too. Things moved fast: The bill was signed into law in February, primary elections were held in April, and general elections occurred in May. Fortunately, local union leaders were ready to seize the opportunity.
“We knew we were dealing with a situation where we would have a new superintendent and a new school board,” said Maddie Fennell, chair of OEA’s political action committee and elementary school teacher, adding that OEA’s goal was to build a new board that would advocate for classroom teachers. That winter, recalls Fennell, the OEA political action committee “sat down and asked, ‘What are we looking for? What do we want to see in candidates?’” They also met with a group of influential business leaders who also sought more qualified school board candidates. “They gave us their platform, and we were actually in agreement about what we all were looking for,” Fennell recalls.
By April, 18 candidates had survived the spring primaries. The union then interviewed all (except for one who refused to meet), recommending nine to the business leaders as good candidates. In the end, eight of the union-supported candidates won their races, and in the process, the union earned allies in Omaha’s business community.
With new school board members, vetted and elected by massive numbers of educators, things have changed for the better in Omaha. “You didn’t use to find teachers on school district committees,” Fennell notes. Now you do. You also didn’t used to hear school board members seek the input of union officers during school board meetings. Now you do. “We are hearing an increased teacher voice in the district, and we are hopeful that will continue,” Fennell says.
“You win things for students and educators when you elect people who will do right by them,” says Martin of the TSTA. Consider the school board in a San Antonio suburb where union-endorsed candidates took a majority of seats this spring. At first, the district’s superintendent lamented the lack of money for raises, Martin recalls. But when TSTA provided real-time state budget figures to the school board members who understand the value educators bring to the classroom, the situation turned around—and raises were won.
And this happened in a right-to-work state, where union leaders can’t sit down to collectively bargain contracts with school officials. Under those circumstances, which are becoming increasingly common, it’s more important than ever to elect leaders who respect educators’ work, understand that everything shouldn’t be about high-stakes standardized tests, and want listen to educators—the true experts—when it comes to the things that work (and don’t work) in schools and classrooms.
“So why are you running?” someone asks Debbie Bernauer as she makes her way past the homemade pierogi stand. “Well, I was a teacher for 34 years,” she begins, “and I think I have something to offer.”