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Partners in Education

For ESPs in merged locals, identity and unity are key.

By John Rosales

Paraprofessional Donna Schulze says belonging to a merged local with teachers is like being in a marriage.

"Each partner has their own personality," says Schulze, vice president of the merged Howard County Education Association (HCEA) in Maryland. "But you need to develop an 'us' personality, not just a 'you and me' personality."

A merged local, whose members include both education support professionals (ESPs) and teachers, may also be referred to as "wall-to-wall," "all-inclusive," or "unified."

Teachers and ESPs in Howard County have been merged since 1989. At first, says Schulze, support professionals were concerned that their job issues and school and Association roles would be overshadowed by teacher concerns.

"ESPs were afraid they would lose their voice," she says. "There are a lot more teachers than ESPs."

Howard County Education Association is one of the largest merged locals in NEA with 3,690 teachers and 970 ESPs. The Association refers to the groups as "certificated" and "paraprofessional," respectively.

"There is strength in numbers," says Schulze. "The teachers won't sign their contract unless we sign ours."

Though HCEA is merged, they have two separate contracts that run through 2010. Next time, both groups hope to negotiate simultaneously, says Ann DeLacy, HCEA president.

"It's more efficient to negotiate one contract," says DeLacy, a veteran teacher. "If we work together as a team, I don't think anyone will lose their identity."

The issue of identity is key for ESPs in merged locals. Support professionals have several concerns specific to their jobs—subcontracting, split workdays, health and safety contract language, classroom management, and job descriptions—all of which must be addressed for them to feel included.

The Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA), a merged affiliate, recently tackled the issue of identity and inclusion at its annual conference by considering a name change that would have replaced the word "teachers" with "education." Although 60 percent of delegates voted to change MSTA to MSEA, the amendment failed for lack of a required two-thirds majority vote.

"They said we lost because MSTA is our brand name and it would cost a lot of money to change the stationery, among other things," says DeLacy. About 17 percent of MSTA's 67,000 members are support professionals.

"You get used to a new name," says Joyce Powell, president of the merged New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). "Whatever the issues, the strength of any organization is unity."

About 43 percent of school employees nationwide are support staff, according to NEA.

Maryland is one of only seven state Associations with "teachers" in their name. The others are California, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. In those states, too, there are some who favor merged unions and would like to see it reflected in a more generic Association name containing "education" instead of "teacher." Others, however, prefer keeping a historical and familiar name.

"The California Teachers Association [CTA] has such a strong brand statewide," says NEA Executive Committee Member Paula Monroe, an ESP from Redlands. "Anytime CTA is mentioned, it carries a lot of weight."

Whether their union is merged or separate, Monroe says it is important for ESPs to maintain a strong identity within their Associations. "It is easy for ESPs to be overshadowed by teachers," she says, since teachers usually account for at least a third or more of the roster and sometimes occupy all elected seats.

"CTA, recognizing that, has taken steps to make sure ESPs maintain their seats on state councils," says Monroe, who favors separate locals. She is a former president of the Redlands ESP Association, which co-owns an office building with the Redlands Teachers Association.

"Every state has to do what is best for that state," says NJEA's Powell, who started her career as a paraprofessional before becoming a teacher. "The real relevance is that people feel included in the overall goal of the organization."

From left: HCEA President Ann DeLacy, UniServ staffers Dan Collins and Cheryl McLeod, and Vice President Donna Schulze help lead a merged local in a state with "teachers" in their Association's name.

Photo: Charles Votaw

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