Leader of powerful union comes straight out of the classroom

Larry Delaney, a Lakewood HS math teacher, takes the helm of the Washington Education Association.

ARLINGTON — For the first time in his career, Larry Delaney won’t be in a classroom when students arrive for the new school year.

After 26 years of teaching social studies and math at Lakewood High School, Delaney is taking on a slightly different role in education this fall.

He’s the new president of the Washington Education Association, the politically muscular statewide union of public school teachers. It’s a job in which he’ll be relied on to communicate the hopes, aspirations and demands of tens of thousands of classroom instructors to school board members, lawmakers and the governor.

Delaney, an Arlington resident who turns 51 this month, said coming right out of the classroom gives him a “unique connection” to members.

“I get the issues. I can articulate the issues,” he said. “I can give voice to the classroom teacher.”

Since assuming office, he’s been out every day talking with members, sitting down with allies in the labor movement and meeting lawmakers. He’s also visited with striking teachers in Kennewick.

He’s made lots of new acquaintances and got a few surprising phone calls.

“In past jobs I didn’t usually get calls from (Governor) Jay (Inslee),” he said. “He called to let me know he was dropping out of the presidential race and he was running for re-election.”

Delaney is settling in with the association in a period of evolution.

McCleary has consumed the union’s attention — and roughly $15 million of its members resources — for the better part of two decades. The Supreme Court closed the book on the marathon school funding case last year. While issues with money persist, the legal battle is done.

“We did a great job with that,” Delaney said. “Now, as we look at our role in the post-McCleary world there is an opportunity for us to refocus the work that we do. The issues that are impacting teachers in the classroom seem to be changing at an exponential rate. As we look forward, members want WEA to do more progressive work.”

That “work” is to be defined and determined. It will mean tackling issues of racial equity and social justice with greater energy and resolve, he said. For example, he said, increasing diversity in teacher hiring will be pushed because they want students to have educators that look like them.

Delaney said the union will seek greater investment in support services for students which will mean hiring more counselors, social workers and mental health professionals.

Fighting for better pay isn’t falling off the agenda.

“If we are going to recruit and retain the best educators, we have to provide competitive compensation. We have to ask,” he said, referring to higher wages and adding teachers, counselors, nurses and other professionals. “We’re asking for the best services possible for the most students.”

Delaney was elected in April to serve a two-year term. He’ll earn $213,000 a year and be on leave from his district.

He succeeds another Snohomish County educator, Kim Mead of Everett Public Schools, who had to step down after six years due to term limits. Mead was a former middle school teacher.

Prior to becoming president, Delaney served on the WEA board of directors and held the top posts of the Lakewood Education Association and the Fourth Corner Council, which represents roughly 4,800 teachers, faculty and support staff in public schools and technical colleges in Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan counties, and north Snohomish County.

His wife is a kindergarten teacher. The two met as students at Central Washington University. They have two daughters.

Delaney had designs on a career as an engineer until a high school teacher, “Mrs. McHenry”, suggested he might be better at the front of a classroom. It turned out she was right. Passing knowledge on to young people has been more rewarding than he ever imagined, he said.

“I am so thankful,” he said. “I had no idea the path would lead here.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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