Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series of stories exploring the teachers union in Idaho. Monday's story will look at how the union impacts school officials and teachers, both union and non-union members.
COEUR d'ALENE - As lawmakers in several states consider education reform measures that seek to curtail collective bargaining and labor policies for teachers, state affiliates of the National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union, have been at the forefront, defending policy changes that would curtail some teachers' rights.
In Idaho, the 13,000-member Idaho Education Association is the state branch of the national teachers union. The NEA claims 3.2 million members nationwide, with affiliates in every state and Washington, D.C.
Most public school districts have local union associations - the Coeur d'Alene Education Association, the Post Falls Education Association, and the Lakeland Education Association - that their school boards have certified to exclusively represent that district's teachers during contract negotiations.
"The IEA is an advocacy organization. What we advocate for is public education, and for children and for the teaching profession, to make sure that we have a highly qualified, very effective teacher in every classroom," said Sherri Wood, the president of the Boise-based organization.
Membership is open to any educator who works in a public school, including charter schools. Members include teachers, as well as support staff, including bus drivers and janitors, Wood said. Student teachers and retired teachers are also IEA members.
"It is a three-tiered organization," Wood said. "When you join your local, you join all three organizations (NEA, IEA and the local)."
The IEA is split into nine regions, and has 30 employees statewide.
Some staff the Boise office, while others work out of offices in each region. The Region 1 office, in Coeur d'Alene, is staffed by two employees.
"Most teachers are extremely busy with the job they do in their classrooms and at their worksites," Wood said. "They don't possibly have enough time to watch what's happening in public education at the state and national level."
Staff members and the president attend various state meetings where decisions are made affecting teachers and students - state board of education meetings, PERSI (Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho), the professional standards commission - and sit on many committees that are set up by the Idaho State Department of Education.
"We are the eyes and ears of the educator in the classroom," Wood said, "because regardless of membership, we advocate for the entire public education process whether it's benefits, or professional development or what is the best practice for the folks working in schools."
Union members from throughout Idaho also donate their own money through payroll deductions to the IEA Children's Fund.
"In 15 years, we have given students across the state nearly $1 million when they're in need, when they need glasses, clothing, medication. The list goes on and on," she said. "We've purchased graduation gowns for kids who can't afford them."
Regarding the size of the budget the IEA uses to fund its efforts, Wood and other IEA staffers would not disclose any budget information.
The IEA's most recent tax return, a public record because the organization is exempt from federal income tax, was filed last April. The return covers the 2008-09 fiscal year, and shows gross receipts of $6.8 million, with total expenses of $4.7 million. Revenue from membership dues was $4.2 million, and $3.2 million in salaries, other compensation and employee benefits were paid out.
Roughly two-thirds of the union-eligible school staff in the Kootenai County's traditional school districts choose to be union members.
"This is a Right to Work state. Nobody has to join the organization," Wood said. "Our finances come directly from our dues-paying members."
The amount of dues individual members pay annually depends on several variables - the amount of time a teacher works, how long they have been teachers, and whether they are support staff members rather than teachers - Wood said.
"It's more complicated than I want to talk about," she told The Press.
The Coeur d'Alene School District, through staff payroll deductions, sends payments that work out to roughly $23,600 per month to the Idaho Education Association. The voluntary dues paid by employees include membership in the local association, the IEA and the National Education Association. The monthly amount sent to the IEA from Post Falls is about $13,300 and $10,500 is sent from the Lakeland district.
Dues tables from 2009-10 show an active, full-time teacher pays roughly $600 per year. Teachers in their first years in the profession receive discounted dues rates.
Instead of the teachers union, some Idaho educators choose to belong to the Spokane-based Northwest Professional Educators (NWPE), a group that bills itself as "the fastest growing non-union educator association in the region."
NWPE has 600 members in Idaho, said executive director, Cindy Omlin.
Unlike the IEA, Omlin said, NWPE does not report to the Department of Labor and the IRS as a union. NWPE is a 501(c)(6) professional association and does not engage in collective bargaining or contract negotiations.
NWPE benefits include advocacy and $2 million in individual liability insurance and legal protection benefits that ensure that members have access to legal counsel at the onset of workplace issues and defense costs related to liability insurance claims.
NWPE membership costs $16.50 per month, or $198 annually, and is open to any employee of an educational entity in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Student teachers and retired educators can join at a reduced rate.
The Students Come First education reforms proposed in Idaho by state public school chief Tom Luna include phasing out tenure for new teachers by offering two-year rolling contracts. School districts would be required to tie a portion of teacher and administrator performance evaluations and pay to student achievement.
Districts will no longer be able to use seniority as the only criteria in determining teacher layoffs.
The education reform bills now being considered by lawmakers in Boise would also limit collective bargaining in schools to wages and benefits only, and would apply the state's open meeting laws to school district teacher contract negotiations, requiring that they take place in public.
Should the Students Come First legislation be enacted, Luna believes there is still a place for the teachers union in education decision-making in Idaho.
"I think there is always a seat at the table for any group association, or any individual that has the best interests of students first, regardless of whether it's the union or a business group," Luna said. "I think the only thing that limits somebody's access and influence is what their priorities are when it comes to education. It depends on what their agenda is, what their motives are."
Wood said if the measures are passed, the IEA will continue its advocacy work.
"We believe that we need to be at the table when there is any change made to public education," Wood said. "We believe all stakeholders should be at the table."
Staff writer Brian Walker contributed to this report.