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Active and Retired Affiliate Partnerships Make the Grade

Active and Retired Affiliate Partnerships Across the Nation Make the Grade

Communication, Cooperation, And Respect: The Keys To Smooth Partnerships Between Retired And Active Educators

By Elise Barker

KEA-Retired members --including president Joyce Dotson, shown with Shelby County Education Association President Cyndi Skelli (who is also Joyce's former student--worked SCEA's welcome table and helped the active Association recruit new members.

Teachers, whether active or retired, don’t give out A’s easily—and the really tough teachers don’t believe in grading on a curve, either. So when several presidents of NEA-Retired affiliates recently gave the relationship between their Associations and their active Associations top ratings, it was evidence that the glowing grades were earned, and that what’s happening in those states might be worth investigating and replicating elsewhere.

At the 2015 NEA-Retired annual meeting, which occurs every summer just before the NEA Representative Assembly, NEA-Retired presidents were asked to give a letter grade of A, B, or C to describe the relationship between their Associations and the active affiliates in their states. The question was intended to lead into a discussion about strategies that cultivate good interactions.

Presidents from four states—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Washington—gave the relationship an A grade.

Martha Karlovetz, secretary of the NEA-Retired Executive Council, helped facilitate the discussion. She says that in every state where the relationship received an A rating, good communication between the organizations was the key. But as a former president of Missouri National Education Association-Retired, Karlovetz knows that the best alliances come down to mutual respect, and acknowledging that both retired and active members bring valuable skills and perspectives to the table.

“[NEA-Retired] can’t try to be dictatorial or overwhelm the active state affiliate with its wishes and issues. By the same token, when I speak to our actives in Missouri, I tell them they have to look beyond what they’re facing right now,” Karlovetz says. “I often say, ‘Not all of your issues impact the retired. But ultimately all of our issues will impact you.’”

A Complimentary Relationship

Given the array of challenges facing teachers, public education, and public-sector unions such as NEA, NEA-Retired presidents say it is more important than ever that retired and active Associations cultivate strong bonds, figure out how they can complement each other, and develop a solid working relationship.

“Our status as a right-to-work state makes it crucial that we have a close relationship,” says Sarah Borgman, Indiana State Teachers Association-Retired (ISTA-Retired) president. “Together, we need to tell the story of how we gained bargaining rights and fair share, and how we got due process and early retirement. And we need to make especially sure the younger teachers know the story.”

Borgman, retired since 1999, is in her sixth year as president. She immediately became active with the affiliate, which got its start in 1993 as a district council. As president, she’s worked with two ISTA presidents: Teresa Meredith, and before Meredith, Nate Schnellenberger. Borgman credits their support as the key to the success of ISTA-Retired, and to the afiliate’s involvement in all the issues that affect teachers and public education across the state of Indiana.

Although the vice president of ISTA, Keith Gambill, is the official liaison with ISTA–Retired, and Meredith often attends ISTA–Retired meetings herself to hear what’s happening on their end and to give an update on ISTA. The retired affiliate has office space and a staff person assigned to support its work in ISTA headquarters and is funded by a line item in the Association’s budget.

Borgman can count on other forms of support from Meredith as well—from providing tchotchkes for gift bags for retiree meetings and conferences, to constantly talking up ISTA–Retired, and referring often to ISTA’s history and the key role retirees played in developing the Association. In that way, Borgman says, Meredith is making a strong link between ISTA’s past, its current challenges, and the future.

In turn, Borgman encourages retiree members to attend district council and local meetings at every opportunity because visibility is important. ISTA–Retired also hosts fundraisers that accumulate enough money to provide two scholarships each year to student members of ISTA.

Always Something To Do

“We want our actives to know that when they retire, there is still a lot that they can contribute,” Borgman says. “Some will be interested in lobbying. Some will be gung ho to work on political campaigns. But there is always something they can do.”

“In Indiana, I feel like we are ISTA, just a different membership category,” she says. “I can remember the days when we were really a ‘meet and eat’ group. But you’ve got to have an agenda, and the agenda has to dovetail with the active Association’s.”

Borgman says building a solid working relationship comes down to cultivating good relationships between leaders, and Joyce Dotson, president of the Kentucky Education Association-Retired (KEA-Retired), agrees. Dotson is in her second two-year term as president, and spent two years as KEA president. She was also a UniServ director in Bowling Green, and spent some time in government relations for KEA. She says it helps when KEA-Retired presidents have been KEA presidents, as she has. “We’ve lived it, we understand the Association and I think that enables us to have a good understanding of what the active presidents are dealing with,” Dotson says.

Dotson has known Stephanie Winkler, the current KEA president, since she was a student member of KEA. “She feels free to contact us and we feel free to talk to her about any issues that come up,” she says. “And our leaders were KEA leaders for so long, whether at the district or local level, that it just makes for a better relationship.” Another major resource, she says, is Jim Sproul, who has served as KEA president and NEA-Retired president. Sproul was also a member of the NEA Advisory Council and the KEA Executive Committee. He is now on the KEA Board of Directors. Dotson says Sproul is a one-man goodwill ambassador for KEA-Retired, and the current relationship between the Associations owes a great deal to his contributions.

He spearheaded KEA’s continuous membership program, which provides active KEA members with KEA-Retired memberships once they retire. KEA-Retired’s membership has grown from 2,000 to more than 12,000, and just as importantly, the program is a constant reminder of the bond between the two groups.

Retire From the Position, Not the Profession

The relationship also has deepened because KEA reserves a position on its lobbying team for a retired member. Right now it is Dotson, but the position does not have to be filled by the KEA-Retired president.

Dotson admits that she’s talked with retired presidents in other states who don’t enjoy the positive relationship with their active Associations. “A lot of times it has to do with money. Operating our own budget is important. It gives us an independence that we wouldn’t have if we had to go back to KEA for everything.”

It also helps, Dotson says, that KEA-Retired now has space in KEA’s Frankfort headquarters. The Association previously had space in another building. Sharing offices has been crucial to relationship building. “There is nothing in the world that beats sitting down face to face, especially if you have an issue that comes up,” she says. “That’s not something to be done in a board meeting.” But Dotson concedes that she is lucky in this regard, because she’s only about 25 miles from Frankfort. It’s more difficult when the KEA-Retired president lives farther away.

Kit Raney, president of Washington Education Association-Retired (WEA-Retired), says having space in the Washington Education Association’s building in Federal Way has helped build a great relationship. She’s there at least once a week. “I consider us a full partner with WEA. There’s no one in that building that I can’t ask to help me with something I’m working on,” she says. “We hold our meetings at the building, and if the president or vice president is there, they will make a point of coming to our meeting, saying hello, and thanking retired members for what we do.”

Raney says it’s also her practice to stop in and say hello to WEA staff throughout the building, so she’s not only checking in with them when she needs something. “It’s a minor thing, but I believe it’s important that we have a presence. And besides that, I really like them all! They’re just great people.

“When I’m talking with newer members of WEA-Retired and they are trying to get something going in their council, I remind them that we have to make ourselves welcome,” she adds. “So if we go in and start demanding things, there will be a backlash. But if we go in and they see that we are helping and not trying to take anything over, they are more than willing to partner with us.”

WEA-Retired also joins in activities that benefit all educators, including phone banking at election time and lobbying legislators. But she is particularly proud of the 60 pre-retired seminars the Association provides each year to assist teachers throughout Washington with retirement planning. “That’s a service that active members love,” Raney says. “It’s also a good pipeline into WEA-Retired, especially for the teachers who have not been particularly active with WEA but may be looking to get active in retirement.”

But Raney says she doesn’t want WEA-Retired to be seen as a “service provider.” “I feel like we are equals,” she says. “Our motto is, retire from your position, not your profession. And we care so much about what’s happening in public education and with active educators. If we can lobby, if we can make sure the right people are getting elected, we have the time and the energy to do that.”

Jim Duffy, vice president of the Illinois Education Association-Retired (IEA-Retired) and secretary of the Rock River Retired Chapter of the Association, feels the same way. “We’ve got a lot of retirees with the same attitude that I have: They spent many years building the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and we have the time now to fight for it,” he says.

That’s important in Illinois, where Gov. Bruce Rauner and some members of the state legislature have attacked collective bargaining and retirement security. The retired members, says Duffy, have fought back by making lobbying trips to Springfield and being involved with IEA members in the Pension Defense Committee, which has played an important role in educating active members about the difference between defined contribution plans and defined benefit plans.

“We try to make ourselves valuable to the IEA, and in turn, the IEA has given us tremendous support. All of that has resulted in a very positive, mutually beneficial relationship that helps all our members,” Duffy says.

IEA-Retired, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is not just concerned with issues that impact retired educators. When legislation arises that will harm current teachers or students, retired members join them in lobbying against it. “We don’t want to be narrow in our view. We want to support public education and our colleagues, retired and active,” Duffy says. This extends to finding out who local leaders are endorsing for school board and other elective offices and supporting those candidates. And when there are strikes, retired members are always enthusiastic about joining their colleagues on the picket line.

“All of us need to be helping active members with the things they’re dealing with,” Duffy says, citing Common Core as just one example. “If we are lobbying or advocating, it needs to be what works for them, not us, because we’re not in the classroom anymore. But we can always listen and share our perspective.

“What we do is sit down with the regional staff, the UniServ directors, and find out how we can assist as an organization with whatever the issue is,” Duffy adds. Most NEA-Retired chapters also have representatives who attend the regional council meetings. In some cases, retired members serve as secretaries of the councils. This involvement ensures continuity; they can be resources when questions or concerns come up.

Staying Connected Through Mentoring

Some IEA-Retired chapters also host receptions for new teachers and other active teachers at the beginning of the school year, and leaders are encouraged to stay connected as the school year proceeds. A mentoring initiative created several years ago has also been crucial to the development of a solid relationship.

“We pair retirees with student IEA members, and the retirees mentor them while they’re in college,” Duffy says. “Some retirees continue to mentor them even after the students have graduated and started teaching.” Because retired teachers may have been out of the classroom for several years, the IEA sponsored a training program for mentors and other retirees on Common Core. In addition, a few retirees are creating a living library, a collection of lesson plans and ideas from retirees for current teachers that is accessed electronically.

As for the support the retirees receive from IEA, Duffy “can’t say enough” about it. “They’ve been great in helping us with the programs we want to carry out, and they work hard to advocate for retirees in the legislature.”

Cinda Klickna, president of IEA, expects even more positive developments will come about through the IEA One Conference, the first joint meeting for education support professionals, Higher Ed and NEA-Retired members. “There will still be sessions for the respective constituency groups, but many of the sessions will be structured for everyone,” she says. “This will help foster even more collaboration.”

Klickna says the relationship between the Associations benefits from the “direct path from active to retiree.” Often, teachers who have been active in their IEA chapters immediately join the NEA-Retired affiliate in their local area. Although they may not be able to immediately move into a leadership role within their NEA-Retired Association, there are often committees they can participate on as retirees in the active Association.

Retirees are also integrated as GPAs, or grassroots political activists. Each of Illinois’ 67 regions chooses someone to serve as a GPA, and often, that representative is a retiree. GPAs establish “go” teams that are ready to swing into action on lobbying and campaigns.

The IEA also provides IEA-Retired with a staff liaison and a paraprofessional whose full-time job is to support the organization. The IEA-Retired president, Janet Kilgus, has an automatic seat on the IEA Board of Directors.
All of the NEA-Retired leaders say the “A” ratings they awarded the relationship between their Associations and the active affiliates are the result in part of the solid rapport they’ve established with their counterparts. So what happens to those relationships when leadership changes?

Duffy says the working relationships between the Associations shouldn’t be so personality-driven that they can’t be maintained by new leaders. “We all know we won’t be around forever in an organization, so we’ve got to mentor other people to step up,” he says. “We all want the same things. It’s just a matter of working together to get there.”

The Characteristics of an A Relationship:

  • Office space within the state Association’s headquarters.
  • A line item in the annual budget.
  • At least one staff member and one paraeducator assigned to NEA-Retired.
  • An automatic seat on the active Association’s Board of Directors for the NEA-Retired president. Jointly signed outreach materials, such as membership letters, from the active and NEA-Retired presidents.


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