By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President
My visit to meet with the Rib Lake Education Association reinforced for me the qualities of strong and steadfast local leaders. This leadership team has had each other’s back on every issue that they have faced and continue to face. They are truly a group-first local with a strong culture of unionism stemming from their leadership.
When I asked about accomplishments, Craig Scheithauer, President of the Rib Lake Education Association, said, “We were able to get the school board to reinstate a salary schedule which continues to offer financial incentives for taking credits.” In our conversation, leaders shared that the Rib Lake EA advocated for advancement in pay based on measurable criteria versus a merit pay structure seen in other districts.
While this was a significant victory, these leaders were humble about success. Craig pointed out, “The work that we do has an economic impact on real people in our community.” Most of the teachers in Rib Lake, located north and west of Medford, live in Rib Lake or in nearby surrounding communities.
Rib Lake teachers understand the value of working alongside excellent colleagues and the role that plays in providing students with the best possible education. Matt Robisch, member and former leader in Rib Lake EA, said, “Our district leadership needs to see us as their most valuable resource in the district.” These leaders noted difficult budgetary circumstances facing their school district. Rib Lake, like many districts across Wisconsin, has struggled to manage tight budgets in a time when the State of Wisconsin continues to cut funding for K-12 education.
Matt also said, “While we understand that it is tough, we can’t continue to shoulder their burden.” Despite gains in their salary schedule, teachers in Rib Lake, like many across Wisconsin, have seen higher insurance deductibles and higher co-pays, resulting in a loss of between $3,000 and $5,000 in take-home pay in the last few years. The leadership is working to find ways to move educators ahead economically because each of them understand firsthand what this has meant to their members.
Another accomplishment of the Rib Lake Education Association is the ability to maintain a high membership level. Through collective advocacy and action, the association is at almost 80% membership.
In our conversation, Matt mentioned engaging district administration in conversation around issues important to the whole staff and individuals alike. Matt said, “We are working to rebuild communications and connections between the school board, administration and our staff.”
Craig pointed out that the school board is, “open to the idea of Meet and Confer,” which could help to open the door to including teacher voice in critical conversations about the needs of students and staff. This team carries a tremendous amount of respect from not just their peers but from every power structure within the district because of the way they carry themselves and professionally debate issues with passion and intensity.
Not surprisingly, the leaders of the Rib Lake Education Association are well aware of the concerns in Wisconsin regarding school funding and the role of the statewide voucher program and its economic impact on our public schools. As public-school advocates, they are working to ensure that members of their school board, administration, and community understand the true economic impact of these policies on their students so that they can begin work in collaboration with other groups to discuss what this means to their community and to their public schools. Public education is truly the heart of so many of our communities across Wisconsin, and the Rib Lake Education Association is a strong local affiliate working tirelessly to keep public schools strong despite the many obstacles that they face.
Despite the challenging environment, the dedication and resolve of the Rib Lake Education Association is an inspiration. The leadership has given years of service to their school, their community, and their union. They are working to build the next generation of union leaders to take their place. Each of these leaders plans to mentor colleagues into roles within the association understanding the need for a distributive leadership model and the importance of continuous evolution within a local education association. The Rib Lake Education Association plans to meet the needs of students, educators, and the community for years to come.
Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.