The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education and Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield. I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted five sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the last set of questions.
My hope is that my interviews with these candidates makes for informed voting in May because Connecticut is in real need of dynamic leadership in education.
12. What is your accomplishment in the past three years as Fairfield Education Association president of which you are most proud and why?
I’m most proud of transforming the Fairfield Education Association (FEA) from an apathetic organization with no voice and little presence in its members lives into a vibrant, well organized, association that brings value to its members and has a strong voice in our school district and in the Fairfield community
When I became president of the Fairfield Education Association (FEA) in 2014/15 we had many open building rep positions, those individuals representing their buildings often didn’t show up for meetings, and the FEA primarily engaged in two activities: negotiating a contract every three years and representing teachers when they got into trouble. In January of 2015, I walked all building reps and executive board members through a strategic planning process to plot a new direction for our association (see attached document). That planning meeting set the stage for a string of accomplishments that established the FEA as a force to be reckoned with in both our school district and our community.
Our newfound strength was developed through 3 main activities:
1. We demonstrated we could get individuals elected to office. Working with parents, the FEA has been instrumental in electing 5 members of the Board of Education and flipping the Board of Selectmen and RTM from Tea Party dominated political bodies to education friendly entities.
2. We have been on the forefront of solving problems for the town and the district:
a. When the town was struggling with rising healthcare costs, I designed a PPO plan that saved the district/town $1 million. A year later, the FEA open up our contract and convinced every bargaining unit in the Fairfield Public Schools to switch to the Connecticut Partnership 2.0 plan. In total we’ve helped the district and town save or avoid $5.2 million in expenses over the last 3 years while improving member benefits and reducing member costs.
b. The district was struggling with what they believed to be a teacher absenteeism problem. We did all the analysis to demonstrate that there wasn’t a teacher absentee problem, but rather activities of the district were creating issues for the buildings and the teachers.
i. We showed the district was paying their substitutes less than other districts and our practices in dealing with substitutes were different than other districts.
ii.We demonstrated that the elimination of February break was creating student and teacher burnout.
iii.We demonstrated that initiative overload was forcing teachers to take time off to meet the excessive demands being put on them.
The district has since addressed these problems by increasing sub pay, turning the President’s Day weekend into a 4 day weekend and cutting back on the number of initiatives considerably.
c. When the town announced that they wanted to focus on increasing their grand list as a way to keep taxes down, we analyzed all 169 towns in CT and demonstrated that the quality of the town’s public school system is the number 1 driver of housing values across the state. As a result, the town is recommitting to investments in teacher pay and per pupil spending after seven years of slashing these investments.
3. We are constantly looking to bring value to our members’ lives personally and professionally. Examples include:
a. We’ve brought the CEA in to do seminars on Teachers and the Law, Retirement, and Special Education and the Law. I’ve also brought in a private financial planner to talk to members about life insurance, disability, saving for college, buying a house, long term care, etc. Some of these seminars were attended by 400 of our 1,000 members.
b.The district’s approach to servicing special education students was/is extremely problematic. We brought together all 120 teachers servicing special education students, identified all the problems and prepared specific solutions. We also did extensive research on reasonable workload and caseload caps for social workers, special education teachers, psychologists and speech language pathologists. We presented all our findings to the district and they are now acting on them.
c. There were several instances where administrators were not being supportive of teachers. We worked with the district to improve those situations in a manner fair to everyone. Each of those situations has been resolved.
d. When the district decided to out-source aspects of the social worker position by bringing in outside counselors, we convinced the district to terminate the out-source relationship and build the program internally with FEA members.
By demonstrating our competence as a political force, problem solver and a positive presence in our members lives, the FEA has become a vibrant organization with which members are proud to affiliate and who parents, the district and the town looks to as a partner in advancing our collective goals.
Any other thoughts as we conclude this interview?
Public schools and the teaching profession in Connecticut are very fragile right now. Powerful forces are pushing to privatize education and part of their process is to damage the unions by eliminating collective bargaining and interest arbitration. We cannot let that happen. That’s why I am laser focused on making sure education friendly people get elected to town and state offices. I’m also very focused on supporting local associations in bringing value to our collective membership. The CEA will never have as close a relationship with its individual members as the local associations will. The CEA can play a critical role, though, in providing locals with the information, tools, infrastructure and support to maximize the value they deliver to our members. If we can accomplish the two pivotal goals: elect the right people to office and support the locals in bringing value to members, then instituting equitable and learning-centered funding, getting teachers back in control of our profession, and maintaining a strong and vibrant CEA will become much more achievable.
12. What is your accomplishment in the past three years as CEA vice president of which you are most proud and why?
I believe that important accomplishments over the past three years have been my leadership on economic and social justice issues. I have been working with others in our Association in confronting racism and poverty. I have also been a leader in involving our Association with others groups in taking action on climate change.
Specifically, I have taken a proactive stand on the issue of institutional racism. We know that institutional racism impedes student outcomes in academics, social development and family engagement.
I have encouraged our members’ attendance at SERC’s Dismantling Systemic Racism Conferences on Race, Education and Success. The conferences have been important events as we seek to ensure access to an equitable education for all of our student. I am presently involved with a working group to pursue further action on this issue.
I chaired a member-driven Task Force on Poverty, which did extensive research on this issue and expanded our work to include research on the effects of trauma on our students. The task force was prematurely merged with a standing commission, but I hope to resurrect it as president. I am presently corresponding with the leaders of other state affiliates who have done more extensive work on the issues of poverty and trauma.
As a result of my leadership in organizing our members in the People’s Climate March in NYC and other climate activities, and my CEA RA-adopted resolution, CEA has become a CT Roundtable on Climate and Jobs Roundtable Affiliate. The Roundtable advocates for public policies that address urgent concerns about climate change while creating good-paying jobs here in CT.
I believe these are important to our union because we improve both our professional status and the quality of education when we unite and advocate collectively on educational, economic and social justice issues.
Any other thoughts as we conclude this interview?
I look forward to leading the Connecticut Education Association during the next three years, using the training, skills and relationships I have developed as CEA Treasurer and Vice President. Our challenges are many, but we are prepared to meet them. I am optimistic about our Association’s ability to continue to serve as the strong statewide voice for education and educators in CT. The teaching profession is a cornerstone of society and I am certain that our members will be unrelenting champions for our students, activists for social and economic justice, and courageous advocates for our communities.