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Association Helps Elect Pro-Public School Candidates


For William Ricks a world history teacher in Sussex County, the seeds of Election Day 2007 were sown many months earlier when the local school board stymied the Sussex Education Association’s (SEA) effort to guarantee a living wage for support professionals. Backed by many in the community, SEA decided a change at the top was in order, so it created the SEA-PAC, chaired by Ricks, and became involved in school board elections for the first time.

On Election Day those seeds bore fruit, as all five candidates cultivated and endorsed by the SEA-PAC swept out the incumbents.

By the next day, when all the results had come in, the mood among SEA teachers and support professionals was “jubilation,” says Ricks. “When it came down to it, we had to fight—so we fought.”

Sussex produced perhaps the most dramatic proof, but across the Commonwealth signs abounded that VEA members helped send the best-qualified supporters of public education into office. Overall, VEA-PAC made recommendations in 78 races for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, and supported candidates won in 64 of them—a winning percentage of 82 percent. Local Association PACs also made scores of recommendations in school board elections, and Association members across the state volunteered for candidates.

“It’s obvious that our members got out and made a difference in the races,” said VEA President Princess Moss, who chairs the VEA-PAC. “They got involved, and involvement makes a difference.”

Statewide, the biggest development was the Democratic takeover of the Senate for the first time in 12 years. As a result, Sen. Edd Houck (D) will become chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee and Sen. Chuck Colgan (D) is expected to be named chair of the Senate Finance Committee. The import of the leadership switch: both men have a history of supporting public education and working constructively with VEA. Houck, in fact, earned the prestigious VEA “Friend of Education” award earlier this year.

When they report to Richmond in January for the new session of the General Assembly, lawmakers will have their work cut out for them. Legislators’ decisions on the new biennial state budget (in the face of a revenue shortfall) will play a big part in whether you can expect adequate resources in your classroom and a decent pay raise over the next two years.

In school board races across the Commonwealth, many Local Associations worked for months to help find and elect suitable candidates.

The Bedford County Education Association (BCEA) was one of them. BCEA polled candidates on the issues and eventually recommended Julie Bennington. BCEA members volunteered to hand out literature, going door-to-door, wrote letters to the local paper, and worked at the polls on Election Day, reported BCEA President Fred Glover.

And it paid off, as Bennington prevailed on Election Day. “Due to our members’ hard work, we were able to put a friend of education in office while keeping out those who would gut our public school system,” said Glover.

The Fauquier Education Association (FEA) threw its support to candidates backed by the Fauquier Alliance for Better Schools, a parent group working for full funding of a responsible school budget. (An anti-tax group put forth an opposition slate.)

FEA mailed twice to every Association member in the county playing up the importance of the races and supporting the recommended candidates. Two out of three won, giving FEA a supportive majority on the five-person school board.

And in District 3, work by local Associations in Grayson, Floyd, Montgomery, Mercer, and Carroll paid off with many recommended candidates winning election to school boards or board of supervisors posts. The victory in Floyd placed a retired VEA member on the Board of Supervisors.

In Sussex, the SEA had never formed a political action committee to support qualified school board candidates. But that changed when the local Association’s nationally recognized living wage campaign ran into board resistance. Spearheaded by bus driver and teacher aide Jerry Parham, and assisted by the VEA and NEA, Sussex ESPs had prepared a well-researched plan for improving wages of support professionals, some of whom had toiled for decades in the county’s school system and still received near-poverty wages. But the school board blocked the plan.

Ricks, who was president of SEA when Parham approach him about starting a living wage campaign, says the Association’s approach to the school board elections used some of the same tactics as the living wage campaign. Two of the most critical were informing and activating the membership and building support among local citizens.

“We went out into the community,” said Ricks. “We went into the churches and talked to people on the streets. Wherever we saw people, we talked about the low pay.” And in the weeks leading up to the election, community members spoke up in support of Sussex ESPs and their slate of school board candidates.

“We found that we had a school board that wouldn’t listen,” says Ricks. “That gave us some common ground to build on.”

The new Sussex school board won’t be seated until later this month, but Parham believes the local’s efforts already have paid huge dividends. ESPs have begun attending—and speaking up—at school board meetings.

Compared to two years ago, Sussex ESPs “are bolder,” he says. “They feel like they’re a part of the system—that they have voice and deserve to be heard.”

For more on earning a living wage, go to NEA's pay site.


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