The Jefferson County Education Association and Me

I am a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, and I am a member of JCEA.  I am “the teachers’ union,” and I thought I’d tell you all a little about that.

I joined in 1986, my first year at Columbine High School.  I didn’t really know anything about unions or any other kind of collective bargaining unit.  Neither of my parents had ever belonged to one, though my step mom was a teacher and a member of her association.  (JCEA is an association, not actually a union.  No Jeffco teacher is required to be a member, and whether they belong or not, they are covered by the contract negotiated by JCEA’s collective bargaining process.)  My step mom never talked about compensation.  As for most teachers, it always took a backseat to her classroom.  I just knew that NEA, CEA, and JCEA were my professional associations, so as a professional, I joined.

I belonged until the controversial dismissal of a colleague.  I will tell you true, I don’t think he was a high quality teacher.  Many people have the idea that unions and associations protect weak members, and I felt that was happening in this case.  I know the association has to represent all its members, but I didn’t feel they were looking out for kids’ best interests, and that has always been my primary focus, so I quit.

Several years later, while Bush was still governor of Texas, before NCLB became the law of the land, our governor, Bill Owens, pushed through high-stakes test legislation for Colorado.  In short, we had NCLB before the rest of the country.  I knew that legislation had been written and backed by pro-voucher, anti-public education organizations.  I saw what it meant: Create tests so poorly designed that kids won’t do well.  Make them the be-all and end-all of schools.  Make school complicit in their own demise chasing that ridiculous test.  Who would get screwed in this process?  My students.  As one person, one voice, I could do nothing.  I knew I had to join my voice with other teachers who, like me, were worried about kids.  I rejoined JCEA.

For years I was a nominal member.  I knew my CEA and NEA dues were supporting efforts to tone down the testing craze and to keep teachers’ voices in the discussion about education.  Then my district implemented a curriculum that I believed very strongly was designed only with the TCAP (the Colorado state test) in mind.  It was not a curriculum that prepared students for colleges and careers.  It would have made my job easier, but I didn’t become a teacher to have it easy.  I became a teacher to make a difference in the lives of kids.  Let me tell you, you do something I think hurts my students, and I get pissed!

Unsure whom else to turn to, I went to my association to set up meetings with district curriculum developers.  It didn’t go exactly as I wished, but here’s what the general public needs to understand: I could go to bat for kids because I had the association behind me.  I didn’t have to fear for my job if I dared to speak out for kids.  To this day, I continue to speak passionately on behalf of meaningful curriculum for Jeffco students, and the association continues to protect me.

This more active roll in the association led to my attendance at the CEA leadership conference last summer.  Contrary to what the general public might expect, I did not attend a single meeting about compensation—no talk of salaries, benefits, or pensions.  We talked about how we could better partner with community groups to strengthen public schools.  We talked about how to be more effective in the classroom.  We talked to each other to share ideas and best practices.  The entire focus was getting the best results for kids in Colorado schools.  I loved it!

When I came back from that mountain retreat, I became part of the steering committee for an academy of professional development for teachers, creating classes to make teachers more effective.  I volunteered hours of my time for this.  I also learned all that the association was doing to help develop meaningful, rigorous teacher evaluation.  To my surprise, I met people who, as part of their association duties, helped counsel ineffective teachers out of the field.  The association absolutely understands that poor teachers are not good for kids or for the image of our profession.

I should mention, too, that when our district faced a serious funding crisis, our association negotiated a contract that cost teachers many thousands of dollars.  It sacrificed pay increases, and in fact created pay cuts then froze our salaries there.  This didn’t just affect our year-to-year pay.  It cost each one of us many thousands of dollars over the course of our careers and our retirement. We traded in staff development days for furlough days, too.  We could have avoided this by increasing class sizes and pushing for many more cuts to classroom funding, but we didn’t.  We voted voluntarily to make these sacrifices because we knew the district truly was in crisis, and we wanted to keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible.  I wish I could say that I am super special in my dedication to my students, but I’m actually quite typical.

I know people have the idea that teachers complain a lot about their compensation, but I don’t.  Like I said, I willingly and without complaint made the sacrifices I was asked to make.  That said, we cannot always balance school budgets out of teachers’ salaries.  At some point, we have to think about attracting and keeping good young teachers.  If I love my students (and truly I do), how can I, in good conscience, encourage them to enter a field where they cannot make a living?  Right now it’s not amazing, but it’s not bad, but if we keep cutting…?

Last November, Jefferson County elected three anti-public education members to the school board.  The voters didn’t know that’s what they were doing.  These three were not at all forthcoming about their agenda.  Even now that they are on the board, they make decisions behind closed doors and behind the backs of the two other board members who are in the middle of their terms.  People are going to notice that teachers, both inside and outside the association, are very much opposed to the actions of these members.  In turn, I hear the anti-teacher rhetoric going full-throttle, often not directed at individual teachers so much as “that teachers’ union.”  So I just thought I’d tell you that I am the teachers’ union.  Chances are very good that, if you have kids in Jeffco schools, their teachers are also “the teachers’ union.”  The JCEA office is in a little strip mall behind a craft store.  It has a staff of five.  Please, look at their pictures.  There isn’t a thug among them.  The rest of “the union” is made up of teachers like me who love kids.

One last note, because it’s such a huge part of anti-teacher rhetoric, let me tell you a bit about pensions.  One of the reasons I don’t complain about what appears, on the surface, to be a ridiculously low salary given my education and years of experience, not to mention my expertise as an English teacher gleaned from my experience as a published author, is that I am fully aware of the value of my pension.  What you may not know is that I have paid into that pension for the past 26 years (and I will continue to pay at least 4 more years, or until I retire).  It hasn’t just been handed to me.  Of course, the district has paid in, too.  I often hear people say, “I don’t get a pension; why should you?”  Well, I don’t have anyone paying mortgage payments to me, but that’s no excuse for not making my mortgage payments.  No one pays me for home loans because I never loaned anyone money for a home.  I make a mortgage payment because I didn’t pay full market value for my house up front.  I agreed to make smaller payments over an extended period of time.  Basically, the public did the same with my salary.  I have accepted less than others with similar education and experience because the rest was coming later.

Also, in case you didn’t know, I and many other teachers have worked outside of education, as well.  When we have done this, we have paid into Social Security.  Because we are getting PERA (pensions), we are ineligible to collect Social Security.  Where does the money we put in go?  To those of you who will collect SS!  (You’re welcome.)  My husband has never paid into PERA.  He has paid into SS since he was 15.  If he dies before me (and he’s a male who is older than me, so there’s a pretty good chance of that) I cannot collect any SS widow’s benefits.  I gave those up in exchange for my pension.  Where will the money he paid go?  You guessed it.  (And again, you’re welcome.)  Does my pension still sound so exorbitant?

So that’s it.  My experience with JCEA.  No union thugs.  No complaining about how awful my job is.  Just a teacher who loves kids working together with other teachers who love kids to preserve a quality public education for all.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Jefferson County Education Association and Me

  1. Tammie Peter says:

    Paula, this is fantastic. Thank you.

  2. Cheryl Lucas says:

    I just wish the new board members could be required to read your letter.

  3. Carole Havelick says:

    This is insightful, inspiring, and generally awesome. However, The Windfall Protection Act, of which I also am a victim, does not eliminate our Social Security in full. It does reduce the amount we receive, and affects different people in different amounts according to some complicated formula of quarters paid in and PERA years contributed. That being said, I wish a letter to the editor could be this long. Would you please forward it to the education reporters at KUSA, etc.? Maybe they can find a way to get it published.

  4. Mart Kelle says:

    This is a magnificent explanation and you are truly wondrous as a person! The 3 anti-public education people in Jeffco are deceitful cowards. I so fully deplore what is happening in Jeffco. Thanks you for this piece!

  5. Bruce McDonald says:

    Excellent article, pointing out the ludicrous fact that our school board has been taken over by people who oppose the idea of public education, having been voted in by concealing their agenda in the election. “Even now that they are on the board, they make decisions behind closed doors and behind the backs of the two other board members who are in the middle of their terms.” We saw this in action at the meeting this past Saturday. Faced with vocal opposition to their treatment of the Superintendent, Witt called a recess and the three of them walked out of the room and went literally “behind closed doors.” After a few minutes they came out and said “security” required that the meeting be called off. “Security” meant the meeting was called off because people came to it. They are capable of operating only behind closed doors.

  6. Joni Hjelle says:

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post. It really is frightening the direction this new school board is taking us.

  7. Karen says:

    Nice! Definitely we work for the kids. I differ on only one point: compensation. You are lucky you have a spouse. I do not. I need the deserved compensation! We deserve to be fairly compensated for what we do. All I ask is in the future please be careful about this comment. Please. Thanks! Otherwise it undermines those of us who do not have spouses. You are very lucky.

    • admin says:

      I don’t mean to imply that compensation isn’t at all important. I just wanted folks to know that JCEA is about so much more. Fair compensation is vital to attracting and keeping quality teachers. As I said, I could never recommend a student become a teacher if it looked like he or she wouldn’t be fairly compensated.

      Right now, the rhetoric is about how “the union doesn’t look out for kids,” but teachers are the union, and usually, individually, parents know we care very much about their kids. I just wanted to remind people of that.

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Sara Mellen says:

    THANK YOU Paula….I’ve forwarded this to Art. I want to print off copies and hand them out to anyone who has ever dissed the union….

  9. Jeffco Parent says:

    https://www.change.org/petitions/jefferson-county-colorado-recall-ken-witt-julie-williams-john-newkirk

    Please forward link

    I am a Jeffco parent that supports and appreciates teachers.

    • Annie says:

      Thanks so much for posting the recall petition. All the parents I know support and appreciate our teachers. Thanks

  10. Matt Teegarden says:

    Paula:

    This is very well said.

    I am and will remain a member of JCEA as long as I am eligible to do so. However, as a Social Worker working in our district, I only wish that when we talk about our work and our Association we could find a way to be more inclusive of our members who are not teachers. I had a colleague who I fundamentally respect and admire both as a professional and as a person respond to my concern by saying, “I consider us all teachers.” I am not.

    I just wish that our role and contributions to the process of public education were included in our discussions and that our concerns and workplace needs were represented in the agreement as well.

    This is a great post. Thank you.

    Mat Teegarden

    • admin says:

      An excellent point, Mat. I work in the ACE program at Columbine, and school social workers have been such an important support to the kids I work with. Schools do so much more for kids than teaching the three R’s.

  11. It’s time to stop squabbling at the district level and look at the needs of the entire state. There is proposal that is being floated around by bipartisan business leaders to really revamp the education system in our State not just Jeffco. This solution have been fully researched and would move more dollars into the classroom where it desperately belongs. The battle over school choice and educational reform would not be so heated if funding were more available and use of funding were truly maximized.

    Set aside the basis of teacher unions, conservative boards, and take a hard look at really making a difference. New thinking can help everyone meet their objectives, improving the child’s education.

    See the link:

    http://goo.gl/EQEXFd

  12. Kim L. Short says:

    Every few years my union has to negotiate a new contract with my employer and it’s not unusual to spend a few weeks on the picket line. And every few years I read the same sort of news articles describing unions as anachronisms that need to be put out to pasture. The comments section always includes a generous number of people who look upon a CEO receiving $10,000 per hour as some sort of unimpeachable deity while the union member who’s wage is perhaps 1/300th of that is a union thug who should simply be happy to have a job…any job. In fact, they should all be fired for their insolence. How dare they question the Lord God CEO?!!

    I didn’t quite understand why underpaid people worshipped those who underpaid them and hated those who were lucky enough to earn a living wage until I read Paul Fussell’s book, “Class: A Guide Through The American Status System.”

    Those who refer to you and me as “union thugs” are simply jealous when someone without a J.D. or an M.B.A. is earning more than they are.

  13. Tabitha says:

    How does the evaluation system play into the pay scale? I am a current visual art teacher. Has it yet been determined how each subject will be evaluated? I think some areas are subjective. When I was teaching there was an emphasis placed on instructional rounds. Do instructional rounds play into the overall evaluation. Why or why not? The staff was coached on what to include during these rounds. My understanding of instructional rounds is that it should better me as a teacher and the classroom as a whole. I never walked away from either of the four rounds with this. Why are evaluations only provided twice a year and only for higher ups? I think it would make a great opportunity for all if peers got involved.

  14. admin says:

    Tabitha, are you in Jeffco? This varies from one district to another in Colorado. In our district, which parts are worth how much should be very clear. The union offered a class explaining it last year, but if you’d like to see us offer it again, maybe we could.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *