Three in race to lead teachers union

OLYMPIA — Washington’s powerful union of public school teachers is electing a new president this month and longtime leaders of Everett and Oak Harbor locals are among those vying for the job.

Everett Education Association president Kim Mead and Oak Harbor Education Association president Peter Szalai are competing for the two-year term guiding the 82,000-member Washington Education Association.

Mike Ragan, the WEA vice president, is also running in a contest that will culminate with the vote in Bellevue on April 26.

The winner will succeed Mary Lindquist and be thrust into an intensifying debate among state lawmakers on the amount of reform and revenue required to improve the performance of students.

WEA is pressing lawmakers to fully fund education in accordance with a Supreme Court decision last year. But groups like Stand for Children are pushing back, saying that decision is as much about money as it is about making reforms that will improve the quality of teaching and performance of students in schools.

“It’s been very frustrating to not be able to turn the conversation away from one that is blaming teachers and shaming schools to one that focuses on the issue that affects schools most and that is chronic underfunding,” said Lindquist, who has served a maximum three terms. “That has been my biggest challenge and that is going to be the challenge of the new president.”

Most of the WEA’s membership are certificated teachers employed in the state’s 297 public school districts. WEA also represents noncertificated classified personnel in several districts.

And its membership includes faculty at 10 community and technical colleges, the three regional universities — Western, Central and Eastern — plus The Evergreen State College.

Roughly 1,200 delegates, chosen by members of the locals, will vote April 26. If none of the three candidates captures at least 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off between the top two vote-getters. The winner will begin their term July 6.

Mead and Ragan are cut from similar philosophical cloth. Each expressed support of the WEA’s current approach and said they’ll work to make WEA a more proactive player in the evolving political debate.

Mead, 53, of Edmonds, taught middle school in Everett before becoming the Everett Education Association president in 2000. She also serves on the WEA executive committee and on the board of the National Education Association.

“We should be the ones driving the policies rather than be reactive,” she said. “We have to be the voice of public education and if we’re not, we’re not doing our job.”

Mead said she’d be firm but collaborative in negotiations on controversial bills dealing with teacher evaluations and assigning schools a letter grade based on a variety of factors including rates of graduation and test scores.

“You want to be taking the opponent’s point of view and try to come up with a better solution. Just saying ‘no’ won’t move us forward,” she said.

Ragan, 62, of Federal Way, began his career as an engineer and moved to the Pacific Northwest from Philadelphia to work for a subsidiary of the Boeing Co. In 1987, he changed professions and began teaching physics and math to middle school students in Kennewick. He won election to WEA vice president in 2000.

He too wants to reassert the WEA’s voice in the political process and said reform groups “get unwarranted press time.”

“They are not educators,” he said. “I feel we’re playing by other people’s rules. They’re controlling the game and that puts us at a disadvantage.”

He also wants to knit closer ties between union members and the communities in which they teach.

Szalai, 54, lives in Coupeville and is a social studies teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School. While he pledged to make the WEA more proactive, unlike the others he faulted the current leadership for ceding valuable ground to reformers.

He said he joined the race after the WEA embraced a new statewide policy of evaluating teacher performance using student test scores and other numeric measures.

“I do not believe you can reduce teaching to a number,” he said. “I don’t think that’s possible and even if it was possible I don’t think it would be healthy.”

He’s set three goals: to repeal the new evaluation system, to reorient the WEA as a nonpartisan professional organization “and not as a wing of the Democratic Party” and to push for its agenda rather than react to that of others.

“We have given aid and comfort to bad ideas. I think we have damaged education,” he said. “I think there comes a time to say no.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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