Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are Your Schools Underfunded? Then Organize!

February 16, 2014 by twalker  
Filed under Featured News, Top Stories

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By Amy Jordan
On a cold Saturday morning, more than 100 educators, parents and students showed up to a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, a big turnout for a meeting like this. Forty-three people spoke during the public hearing and 2,400 signatures were delivered calling on the school board to fully fund public education in the growing school district, efforts led by the Loudoun Education Association (LEA.)

How did LEA get so many people involved? Through a focused commitment to organizing.

Step 1: Rally Around a Single Issue

You’d think students in the wealthiest county in the nation would have everything they need to succeed in school, but that’s not the case in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is also one of the fastest growing school systems in the country.

For the past two years, the county’s School Board and Board of Supervisors have chosen not to keep pace with Loudoun’s growth by cutting the superintendent’s spending proposals by millions of dollars.

“The children are in over-crowded classrooms, they are receiving less differentiated instruction due to the amount of students in the classroom, teachers are not being given competitive pay, and the technology is quite sad,” said second grade teacher Erin O’Dore.

And now educators, parents and students themselves have had enough.

“In Loudoun County we’ve had so many years of budget underfunding and people are just fed up,” said Joey Mathews, president of the Loudoun County Education Association.

So LEA officers and the LEA Board of Directors got together on weekends to plan how to organize around a single goal. That goal: get a good budget for their students and members.

For Andy Koch, a school bus driver, the budget issue is what led him to get more involved with the Association, “mainly so I could understand the issues that are at hand,” said Koch. “More and more emphasis is placed on education, but without the needed funding it will go nowhere.”

Step 2: Educate and Ask People to Help

Educating the community and election officials about how an underfunded budget affects students, and talking to educators about the budget process is the first step in getting them organized for action. “As teachers, we like to make a difference in the lives of the children in our classrooms,” said O’Dore. “Once people are aware of what cuts might be made, and how the discussions are going through the county, they want to get involved.”

For Carl Mackey, a health & physical education teacher, all it took for him to get more involved was an email seeking volunteers to join a LEA committee.

“I thought I would show up, and there would be a room full of 30-40 people from buildings all over the county that were seasoned veterans of the funding process, and that I would just try to be a little help to the brigade of association stalwarts that were working 60 hours a week feverishly on all the issues important to teachers and LEA members in Loudoun County Public Schools,” said Mackey.

But at the first meeting he quickly realized that wasn’t the case when he walked into a room with just 9 people.

“This experience has taught me that you cannot assume that someone is fighting your battles for you, and that the belief ‘I don’t need to get involved because there is probably already 10,000 people going to this rally and me making it 10,001 isn’t going to matter’ is all too often exactly why those opposing us win out over us.”

Step 3: Use Free Digital Organizing Tools

With some training from the National Education Association’s Center for Organizing, LEA leaders started to communicate a little differently than they had in the past.

“We have used every available asset we can to get people more informed,” explained Mathews. “More informed people means more people will participate.”

First things first, LEA started building their email database by using sign up sheets asking for email addresses at meetings. They then entered the emails into MailChimp, a free email service.

Slideshow: Organizing in Loudon County

This email database has proven critical for sharing information and making sure public education supporters are at every meeting and input session for Loudoun County’s budget process. A few weeks ago, Mathews got last minute word that the Board of Supervisors was going to have one more input session before tax rate came out. LEA leaders quickly got a message emailed out and “within two hours we had 40 people to speak at that input session,” said Mathews. “We wouldn’t have that outcome if we hadn’t built that database in MailChimp.”

Another new communication tool LEA has used is JotForm, a free online form building platform. They put out a request for stories about how underfunding of Loudoun County’s public schools is hurting students, staff, parents, and our community as a whole, using JotForm to collect the stories. LEA was then able to share hundreds of personal testimonies with the School Board and Board of Directors. (Read their stories.)

LEA has also been active on Facebook, sharing photos from meetings, information about what’s coming next and posting news articles about the budget on their page.

“Using new digital tools has been awesome,” said Mathews. “We can send our message to over 5,000 people, not just membership, but community leaders, PTA members, political groups and others.”

Step 4: Keep Fighting

With a newly organized and energized membership, LEA is going to continue to be a stronger voice in education issues in Loudoun County.

“Even if we don’t get everything we wanted, this has been a win because of all the people we have gotten to participate,” said Mathews. “People have realized that in the past with not stepping up there was apathy. Now they’re willing to speak up and say we’re not going to take it anymore.”

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