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Sending a Message

NEA Executive Committee members visit Arkansas to support striking educators—and make the case for professional pay.

By Tim Walker

When Leroy Williams, president of the Lee County Education Association, appeared before the Lee County school board in January, teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) in the poorest county in Arkansas had not been given a raise in three years. Williams was asking for a $1,000 pay raise for teachers and a $450 increase for ESPs. The board, not for the first time, rejected the pay hike proposal, 4–3.

After the Association’s efforts to persuade the district to agree to professional mediation fell on deaf ears, enough was enough. On January 29, more than 100 teachers and support professionals hit the picket lines and went on strike.

One week later, NEA President Reg Weaver and Executive Committee members Carolyn Crowder, Becky Pringle, and Marsha Smith traveled to Marianna, Arkansas, to support the striking educators, all part of NEA’s grassroots campaign to improve professional pay for the nation’s teachers and ESPs. Arkansas Education Association President Daniel Marzoni joined Weaver, Crowder, Pringle, and Smith at a rally at Kingdom Connection Church on February 2.

NEA President Reg Weaver and members of the NEA Executive Committee brought encouragement and support to striking educators in Marianna, Arkansas. Photo: 2007 Shaun Heasley, all rights reserved

“When we heard that meaningful communication had for some reason been cut off,” Weaver told the enthusiastic crowd, “When we heard some of our family members were not being treated like the professionals they are, we had to be here. We are part of your family. You need to know that the 3.2 million members of the National Education Association are with you!”

Weaver urged Lee County’s educators not to give up. Weaver and Marzoni also urged them to take a very important message back to the community: There is nothing more these professionals want to do but be in the classroom teaching their students.

“You are advocating for the young people in your county to have the best possible education,” Weaver added. “If you don’t stand up and speak up for you, then who will? And if you don’t do it now, then when? Thank you for having the audacity to stand up for something you believe in.”

The rally in Marianna ultimately helped persuade the district to agree to a mediator to settle the dispute and also raised $2,500 to pay for health insurance for the support staffers. For Leroy Williams, the visit by Weaver and members of the Executive Committee came at a critical time.
“We were pretty tired; some were depressed and beginning to lose hope,” he said. “We all left the rally feeling rejuvenated.”

After two weeks, the teachers decided to return to the classroom; in return, district officials agreed to work to increase teacher and ESP salaries and benefits for next year. The agreement to end the strike included no retaliation or retribution by either side. While the Lee educators were relieved to be back at work and looking forward to helping students prepare for the state benchmark tests, the commitment to better pay has not waned, and the issue will be raised again by Lee County teachers and ESPs next year, Williams said.

“We succeeded in getting people together and sending our message across the county, state, and the entire nation,” he said. “Our voice was undoubtedly heard.”

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