While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has changed the way we do business, there is one thing that will never change: the power of the union. That truth was evident for the North Haledon Education Association (NHEA) in late April as they faced the threat of privatization of their special education therapist staff. Given just two days’ notice, the NHEA sprang into action and saved its members—all while navigating the new world of remote organizing.
Citing a need to save money, the North Haledon School District decided it needed to outsource two full-time, tenured speech therapists and one part-time occupational therapist. As any educator and parent of special needs children will tell you, these positions are vital to the success of a unique population of students. To add insult to injury, the district only notified the affected employees two days before the board of education was set to vote on the issue.
“This came as a total surprise to the affected staff members and our local. To say we were uncomfortable with a move like this from our school board and administration is an understatement,” said Rosaria Taormina, NHEA co-president. “We were extremely saddened, disappointed and frustrated that the district had decided to outsource our therapists who are an integral part of our school community. We all know the district is always looking for ways to save money, but never felt they would let go of such valued, tenured staff members to do so.”
With a board meeting set to eliminate these positions in less than 48 hours, NHEA leadership knew it needed to quickly form a plan to make sure the board was aware of just how essential these staff members are to our school community. After communicating with the women whose jobs were at stake, the NHEA moved to communicate the board’s proposed plan to the parents of students directly affected by this decision.
Within the day, NHEA members organized to connect with these parents, who were understandably outraged by the news. Several took it upon themselves to bombard the board with letters and emails, with one parent creating and circulating a public petition on moveon.org. In a matter of hours, the petition was shared on social media and generated over 600 signatures. Additionally, many parents planned to attend the district’s first-ever Zoom board meeting.
“We requested that the board hold the reductions in force (RIF) and privatization discussions in public, rather than closed session, so we would have insight to what the board was thinking and how they would react,” said NHEA co-president Carrie Rohllf. “However, given the building closures and social distancing regulations in place, we had to think about showing a physical presence in the absence of a physical meeting.”
After considering several options, the NHEA realized that the solution was clear: They would just show up anyway. In the remaining hours before the meeting, the NHEA rallied its members to share personal experiences which showed the value of these educators to the students and staff of the district. Several emailed compassionate letters to the board, and many were prepared to speak at the public portion of the board meeting with the plan to showcase the work of these valuable professionals.
Their efforts paid off: staff and community members filled the virtual meeting in matter of minutes. In fact, they were so successful, many association members and parents indicated they were not able to access the meeting due to the 100-person Zoom limit. With regular board of education meetings in North Haledon generally drawing less than 10 people, the board was not prepared for this type of turnout or outcry. And, when it came to the personnel discussion of the agenda, the board shocked the crowd and moved to remove the abolishment of these positions, stating they were not in support of outsourcing these roles.
“We are proud of our community of educators and parents for their advocacy, and we are equally as proud of the North Haledon board of education members,” said Taormina. “They chose not to make a hasty, uneducated decision. It’s clear that if they do their research and find what we already know, they will learn that privatization is not a cost-effective move and our students are worth it.”
“The NHEA has proven that we are a force to be reckoned with,” added Rohllf. “We will continue to rally and are prepared to show up and support our association family through it all. We won the first battle, and we intend to win the war!”