Common-Sense Organizing Reaps Big Rewards for ESP Local

Like most Association leaders across the country at this time of year, board members of the Ventura Education Support Professionals Association (VESPA) in California met for a summer planning session to discuss how to engage veteran members and new hires in the coming school year.

Unlike most Associations, VESPA is starting the fall semester with almost 100 percent membership. As of this month, 796 of 802 eligible school district workers pay full dues in this fair-share state. Those who don’t belong claim religious, political, or anti-labor union principles.

“We are a family-oriented community where our employees have grown up together, gone to school together, and raised kids and grandkids in this community,” says VESPA President Teri Roots. “We know our members and our members know and trust that we have their best interests at heart.”

The 16 VESPA directors and officers (two were absent) attending the three-day planning session did not rest on their recruitment laurels or childhood friendships with members. Instead, they brainstormed on new ideas to satisfy the evolving needs of members.

“We know they are invested in this community and want nothing more than to assure that the district succeeds,” says Ruben Galindo, VESPA vice president and communications chair. “We start there.”

Despite their undying loyalty to local schools and students, members need to “see our faces, hear our voices, and know that we are here for them,” says Kendall Griffin, chair of the membership engagement team.

“But more important, we need them to know that there is strength in numbers,” she says. “We want to convey that it’s important for them to stay involved in the Association as much as possible, even if to only stuff envelopes at home while watching their kids, share Facebook posts, wear red on specific days, or make phone calls.”

Member Retention
One key to retaining members is to offer professional development opportunities, according to Griffin.

“There is always something new to learn within your job category,” she says. “There
is always a new legal issue, child or parental rights issue. We tap into that.”

Throughout the school year, VESPA leaders encourage members to attend local, state, and national Association training courses and leadership programs.

For example, Roots works with the district’s director of classified human resources when planning professional development courses for members, which includes all of NEA’s nine ESP job categories. Last year, through their collaboration, they invited California Teachers Association (CTA) staff to conduct job-related training sessions for employees.

(l-r) Ruben Galindo, VESPA vice-president, Teri Roots, VESPA president, Kendall Griffin, membership engagement team chair.

“It was a wonderful experience for our classified staff to see our district working with our statewide organization in such an effective way,” says Roots, who has served as president for 11 years.” As a board, we set aside a good portion of our budget to send members and leaders to out-of-town conferences conducted by CTA and NEA.”

At the retreat, board members also discussed ways to work closer with the Ventura Unified Education Association (VUES), which represents teachers, librarians, speech therapists, and counselors. Together, both unions serve approximately 18,000 students. Members work together, for example, by taking school board members to breakfast and jointly sponsoring community town hall meetings.

Local, State, and National Association Support
For years, VESPA members have attended the annual CTA ESP Leadership Development Academy and CTA Summer Institute to study education, legal, and job-related issues involving wages, retirement, health care, and other concerns. Nationally, VESPA can claim five graduates of the prestigious NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program, including Roots.

Galindo has worked as a technology specialist with the district’s technology department for 13 years.

“In the tech world, we have so many things that change constantly,” he says. “If we don’t make an effort to stay current with all the changes then our skill set remains stagnant and we do not grow as individuals.”

VESPA members work at 47 sites including bus barns, a mechanics yard, the district’s administration building and facilities and trades department. Griffin says professional development can inspire as well as unite members.

“You can see the relief in their faces and hear the appreciation in their voices after attending a training session,” she says. “They (members) like to learn and share the information with co-workers and parents.”

Community Involvement
In addition to budgeting funds for training, VESPA supports students through its scholarship awards program. Each year, VESPA awards four $1,000 scholarships to high school seniors whose parents are ESPs.

They also support the Ventura Education Partnership (VEP), a nonprofit coalition of education-oriented groups. During VEP’s annual SummerFest event, VESPA sponsors an information booth for children (they recently gave away ESP coloring books and crayons), and adults who are given pamphlets with ESP job descriptions and historical data.

“Our board works the booth,” says Roots, CTA’s current ESP of the Year. “It’s a great opportunity for community members to meet us and get acquainted.”

When a new classified employee is hired, VESPA officials present them with a membership packet that includes a letter addressed to them from Roots, a pamphlet detailing VESPA’s history, and information about CTA and NEA.

“We are currently working with the district’s classified human resources department to create a welcome video specifically for new hires,” says Roots, who is on full-time release status from Buena High School. “We probably already know the new people.”

Photos: Matt Dayka