Spotlight on Locals: Owen-Withee Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen presents Deb Smith, President of the Owen-Withee Education Association (OWEA), with the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate as members gather in support. Owen-Withee Education Association members (pictured from left to right): Gayle Baehr, Mary Meyer, Jeffer Scheuer, Ryan Gutsch, Jona Hatlestad, Mary Miami, Julie Plautz, Chad Eichstadt, Jodi Rahn, Pete Devine, Julie Kodl, Russ Weiler, Marilyn Jaskot, Denice Poetzl, and Sara Koller.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

According to teacher Russ Weiler, the strength of the Owen-Withee Education Association comes down to the focus on “students first and advocacy that puts students at the center of what we do.” “In the Owen-Withee Education Association,” Russ told me, “we have a lot of home-grown teachers who are involved in our community. We see our students in school and out of school, and we are always working to keep our schools and our community strong for our students.”   

Jodi Rahn, fifth-grade teacher, said strong communication is what makes the local so effective. Jodi said, “It’s easy for the membership and our leaders to connect with one another because we have leaders who are accessible to members as a whole. We run face-to-face meetings regularly, and we have building groups comprised of members and non-members where we work to discuss big ideas of what’s happening in the district.”  

When I asked Russ about a success story, he said, “The Owen-Withee Education Association is a wall-to-wall unit with members from the teacher ranks and the education support professionals ranks. I’m proud to have our ESP members with us in our local and that they have continued to re-certify, seeing the value in our union.” When I asked about membership numbers, Russ said, “We are around 60% membership for teachers and education support professionals. We’d like to reach the 65-70% membership threshold, and we keep working toward that.”  

“Our rapport with the school board has been another success story. Through our meet-and-confer efforts, we have seen movement on issues that matter to our colleagues and our students. Not everything that we discuss happens immediately, but through these conversations, we’ve been able to improve aspects of our school over time which really matter,” according to Russ.  

As far as successes, Jodi cited the association’s advocacy for compensation for hours beyond the regular school day. “We have been working to re-align payment scales for extracurricular activities, coaching and advising to remain competitive with nearby districts. We’ve also worked to fairly compensate educators for working summer school to continue to offer an excellent quality for our students and families. This was well-received by staff and really a win-win for all involved.”

Jodi offered this advice to other locals across Wisconsin: “Keep the lines of communication open with your members and make sure that you are honest and clear with them. Part of our success is that we have built a trusting environment. Also, listening is an under-rated skill. Leaders need to listen first and hear their members out, and then do their best to address their needs.”  

Russ said, “It only takes one person to get some important work happening in your local, then, you can recruit two, then four, through building connections with your colleagues. Locals need to lean on leaders for help like asking WEAC leadership, Regional leadership, and even nearby locals for advice and mentorship. We have been so fortunate to have strong leaders nearby in Loyal and Neillsville who have mentored us. I am very grateful to be a part of our union family.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.

Spotlight on Locals: Gale Ettrick Trempealeau Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen presents Gale Ettrick Trempealeau Education Association (GETEA) President Laura Knutson with the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate.  They are joined by GETEA leaders (L to R) Alexis McVietty, Sue Guenther, Karen Shimek, Jennifer Henderson, Amy Schaefer, Cindy Stetzer, and Aaron Ottum.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

When I asked Laura Knutson, President of the Gale Ettrick Trempealeau Education Association, what makes her local strong, she told me, “We have a good working relationship with our administration and our school board. We work together cooperatively.”  

This good working relationship is what led to one of the successes for the GETEA around health insurance. Two years ago, when the district began a process to make modifications in the health insurance of moving to a high deductible plan for all employees, the members of the school board listened to the concerns and fears of the employees and decided to make an investment in health savings accounts to ensure that employees would be able to meet the high deductible, especially on day one of the new plan taking effect. Laura said, “This went a long way toward calming fears and showed a good faith effort on the part of the school board and administration.”  

Cindy Stetzer, high school science teacher and leader of the Gale Ettrick Trempealeau Education Association, reiterated Laura’s sentiment about the success of the GETEA in the transition to their health insurance plan. She noted, “Because of our working relationship, the school district took the concerns of the teachers to heart. They listened to us.” Cindy also said that when working with the school district on their compensation model, “We were able to find some common ground.  The district heard us, and we built a plan that has strengths and isn’t as cumbersome as some plans in nearby districts.”  

When asked what makes the GETEA strong, Cindy shared, “It is the people that we have in our local association that keep us strong. We are active, and we have taken time to build good relationships with administration and the school board. Because of that, we have a seat at the table. Additionally, those in leadership roles always keep the lines of communication open.” 

As far as advice to other locals in Wisconsin, Cindy advised, “Focus on your successes, not what’s been lost. And, keep plugging away at this work every day by continuing to foster relationships. When you focus on what you need to best take care of and educate the students in your district, you will be able to see gains.”

Laura’s advice to locals in Wisconsin is, “Keep the lines of communication open with administration and your school board. We continue to meet regularly and remain proactive in our approaches to putting our students first and to keeping our schools strong.”

 Thank you to the Gale Ettrick Trempealeau Education Association for your steadfast commitment to cooperation, communication and relationship building.  

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.

Spotlight on Locals: Beaver Dam Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen presents the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate to members of the Beaver Dam Education Association (BDEA). Pictured from Left to Right are Ali Bohl, Kris Schumacher-Rasmussen, Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, Lisa Schleicher, Mark Lefeber, Jen Vinz, Betsy Ramsdale, and Glen Milleville. 

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

“Communication and outreach are keys,” Lisa Schleicher, President of the Beaver Dam Education Association (BDEA), told me when asked about the success of the BDEA. “We readily share information with our building representatives from our six elementary buildings, middle school, high school, and alternative school. It is important to keep people knowledgeable at all levels of our association. We work to ensure that our home email addresses are up to date and that we are sharing information on our BDEA Facebook page because if our members aren’t informed of the work that we are doing, it can all fall apart.”

Kris Schumacher, middle school art teacher and past president of the Beaver Dam Education Association, echoed that sentiment saying, “Constant communication is so important between BDEA leaders and our members. It is also important among our group of leaders who reach out to each other often. We are also actively engaged with the BDEA Facebook page. We use this as a space for communication about relevant events and professional articles on education from local, state, and national perspectives. We also share out information from attending our local school board meetings. We work to educate our members on how to be an active member and how to get involved on the district level.”

Lisa said, “Last year, we needed to quickly mobilize when the BDEA was made aware of a substantial school schedule change right before summer break began. Since this change would impact our students, families, and members for the following school year, the Beaver Dam Education Association educated parents and members about the proposal. In response, over twenty people spoke at the school board meeting, putting this change on hold for a year and allowing more conversation to find a solution that was a better fit for the school district.” 

There were other victories that resulted from this organizing work. Lisa shared: “A parent advisory committee was formed that continues to meet with the district superintendent, and a candidate for the local school board also emerged.” Again, showing that the BDEA is not only lifting up its members’ voices, but also helping parents and members of the community find their voices to keep their schools strong for students and families.

Kris also pointed to the BDEA’s organizing success last year saying, “Our local was able to reconnect on advocacy, working with parents for shared goals and opportunities for students. We also have been advocates on the legislative front hosting a BDEA member meet-and-greet with Elisha Barudin, candidate for State Assembly back in September.”

As far as successes, Betsy Ramsdale, Beaver Dam Education Association’s president-elect, shared, “Our recertification election results have been excellent with 82% of our colleagues supporting the Beaver Dam Education Association and our work.” Betsy also highlighted the supportive members in the BDEA and their ability to quickly mobilize. 

Lisa is planning to retire at the end of this school year, and she shared with me that Betsy, the vice president and also the president-elect, is ready to step in as the next president.  “The BDEA is in good hands considering Betsy’s experience as an organized leader who motivates others and has served 10 years in the district,” Lisa said. Again, demonstrating the strength of the BDEA in having other educators who are stepping into smaller roles and attending trainings to ensure that there is a team of leaders working together on behalf of the students and members in their community.  

Betsy said, “While I am new to this role, I am continuing to learn. Attending the WEAC Organizing Institute for Anchor Locals in January was a great opportunity to meet and learn from other leaders across the state. I want to keep learning and growing as a leader.”

Lisa’s advice to other local leaders across Wisconsin: “Keep one-to-one conversations going with members and potential members. When people know you, know what you represent, who you represent, then they understand what the union can do. That’s how they learn to join with us.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.

Spotlight on Locals: Port Washington-Saukville Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen delivers the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate to Port Washington-Saukville Education Association (PWSEA) President Brian Borley, joined by PWSEA leaders (L- R) Laura Rashid, Connie Hildebrandt, Nathan Ugoretz, and Tera Rogers.  

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

“It is our strong leaders and their commitment to seeing that we have a voice that makes our local strong. Our leaders bring a sense of unity to our local,” Connie Hildebrandt, middle school teacher, told me.  “Our local works to get young educators on board and involved. We are connected and committed to each other and always working to do our best for kids. I’m so proud of the work that we do and to tell people that I am a part of the Port Washington-Saukville Education Association.” 

Deb Anderson, second grade teacher and past president of PWSEA, said, “There is a tradition of strong leaders in the Port Washington-Saukville Education Association. In our local, we are a team, and everyone has a role.  We understand one another, which allows us to play to one another’s strengths. We welcome new members in the local in baby steps, bringing them in, letting them shadow and learn, and encouraging them to step up when they are ready. Conversely, we allow people an opportunity to take some time away as their lives require, but we keep them engaged and welcome them back into the fold when they are ready to give back again.” This approach allows for history and perspective to be maintained while continuing to move the local association into the future.  

As far as successes, Deb shared with me that the Port Washington-Saukville Education Association has worked collaboratively with District Superintendent Michael Weber and the local school board to maintain a salary structure. Last year, they were once again able to create a career path for all educators to reach the top of their pay scale through experience and taking graduate courses.   

Brian Borley, current president and high school social studies teacher of 14 years, stated, “For a teacher like me, with a master’s degree plus 30 credits beyond it, there are now real financial incentives for me to continue to grow as a professional through additional coursework. This provides our staff with both predictability and stability and makes us want to stay in this district.”  

The local success of an improved salary schedule was highlighted by every PWSEA leader with whom I spoke. Nathan Ugoretz, high school social studies teacher and PWSEA past president, said, “We wanted our members and colleagues to understand this change, so we sat down with them and explained how these improvements in the salary schedule can positively impact them financially if they invest the time and resources in their own professional development.”  

When asked what makes their local strong, Deb shared, “We still have a voice, and we have worked hard for that by building relationships with district leadership, the school board, parents, and the community. We will put ideas out there and plant seeds. Win or lose, we aren’t afraid to discuss what matters to our colleagues and our profession.”

Brian echoed that sentiment saying, “We have a voice because we continue to work collaboratively with district administration and the local school board to present solutions when problems arise. Our leaders continue to attend trainings to keep our local association strong.” 

Nathan mentioned their continued advocacy and organizing, especially through their work as a local in the election last fall. “We understand that elections are important to the work we do in the classroom with our students, and having education friendly lawmakers will make our schools stronger. Because of that, PWSEA was active politically raising both funds and awareness about candidates who pledged to support our public schools and our students. We organized and mobilized our members and, ultimately, prevailed in electing an education-friendly Governor for Wisconsin.”  

Brian concluded our conversation by saying, “PWSEA is a partner in making the Port Washington-Saukville School District strong for students, families, and our community.” Thank you to the Port Washington-Saukville Education Association for your hard work and dedication as a WEAC Strong Local Affiliate. 

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.

Spotlight on Locals: Racine Educators United

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen (middle, left) delivers the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate to Racine Educators United President Angelina Cruz (middle, right) at the REU Representative Assembly. Racine Educators United members gather in solidarity with signs demonstrating their activism and commitment to their students and public schools in Racine.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

When I asked Angelina Cruz, 5th and 6th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, currently serving as the President of the Racine Educators United, about the success of their local, she said, “As we have rebuilt over the last couple of years, new people have stepped up.” This engagement can be seen in the photograph taken at the REU Representative Assembly when I presented them with the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate. Angelina also told me, “People are embracing an organizing model of our union.”

That organizing work can be seen in their most recent success in partnership with their Community Coalition, My School My Voice. They worked collaboratively with the City of Racine to include a property tax insert outlining state funding levels for Racine Unified and funding levels for private and voucher schools in Racine.

When I asked how they achieved this, Angelina said, “We gathered over 800 signatures in support of voucher transparency to share with Mayor Cory Mason and the Racine City Council through showings of the documentary film Backpack Full of Cash and with tables at other large events and festivals in Racine. Now, I have educators reaching out to me from the villages of Mount Pleasant and Caledonia asking why their tax bills are not showing this information. For us, our first step was the city, and our next step in this campaign includes lobbying the nearby villages.”

That may not be necessary if Governor-Elect Tony Evers is successful in passing state law that would ensure voucher transparency. Statewide, folks in our communities have a right to know how much money is being siphoned from our public schools, which serve all students, to fund private and voucher schools, which serve a select group of students.

Ryan Knudson, 8th grade studies teacher and secretary for the Racine Educators United, told me, “We are the only group fighting for public education and our students. When we stand up, together, for our students, good things happen.” Ryan also said, “Our most important successes are when we talk to our colleagues about who we are and the work we are doing, and they see the value in joining with us and fighting for our community. To me, these are the important victories.”

Norma Cortese, 5th grade dual language teacher, said, “The strength of our local is that although we have different roles in our daily lives, our main goal is to do what’s best for students. We continue to work districtwide in collaboration with the school board and the school district toward decisions that are good for kids.”

Cortese also highlighted the history of local strength success in Racine by saying, “Our local has always been committed to our students and our profession whether it was a few years back when the elementary teachers combined forces to advocate for removal of an ineffective reading program or when we rallied with our union brothers and sisters at the Capitol in Madison.”

The Racine Educators United can be counted on as powerful advocates. Cortese also said, “We need to be involved in broad-based community coalitions which is why I am a part of a number of Hispanic community organizations and engaged with my students and their families outside of the classroom.”

Angelina also said, “Another success was protecting our employee handbook when the School Board recently considered changes.” Since Racine, like districts statewide, has staff guidelines outlined in policy within their handbook, it is important to recognize that changes in handbook language can dramatically impact educators’ working conditions, which have eroded over time. It’s local unions like the Racine Educators United who continue to work toward better conditions for all educators. United, we can advocate for improvements like mandatory prep time and just cause language for all employees.

Gwen Shaw-Scott, a dedicated Education Support Professional for Racine Unified School District, reiterated this sentiment saying, “Our strength is our willingness to fight for issues that come up every day. We always stand firm with administration to resolve any issue working to make our students’ and members’ lives better.”

When I asked Angelina for advice to other local leaders in Wisconsin, she said, “While the challenges in public education feel big and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, find issues that matter to your members and your community. When you begin to tackle these one at a time, you can make a difference for your students and your community. This is difficult work, but important work, that no one else is doing.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.