By Brian Rock
In September, the temperature in Marie Corfield’s classroom went above 90 degrees.
“My room is oppressively hot in the warm weather,” said Corfield, who serves as Legislative Action Team chair for the Flemington-Raritan Education Association. (FREA) “After our mold outbreak, I purchased a thermometer to track the heat and humidity. When I saw that number, 91.9 F, I was shocked. No other white-collar profession is forced to work in such unhealthy and unsafe conditions.”
If, like Corfield, you work in one of the many New Jersey schools without air conditioning you’re familiar with this scenario. Students are lethargic, and it’s impossible to get work done. But there’s not much that you can do about it.
There are no statewide regulations about temperature control. It’s up to each district to decide how to handle the issue. Given the budgetary constraints of the Chris Christie era, that means that most districts simply decide that they can’t afford it.
But luckily for Corfield, there was something the educators in the Flemington-Raritan School District could do.
A new superintendent, Kari McGann, had just come on board in July 2018. She understood the importance of safe and healthy schools, and she enjoined the board of education to propose two bond referenda. The proposals included air conditioning and dehumidification systems, along with security upgrades and other critical repairs.
FREA made a bold decision to support the referenda, and on election night last November they waited anxiously to see if their hard work would pay off.
The story of this campaign starts in the summer of 2018. The incoming superintendent had been on the job for just over month when she received a phone call about mold in one of the buildings. A teacher had noticed mold growing on the wall in her classroom.
When the district’s leadership team visited the school to investigate, the problem was widespread. The school libraries were hit hard, and many of the books had to be thrown out. Teachers lost supplies that had been stored in their classrooms for the summer.
“FREA has an office in the basement of the Reading-Fleming Intermediate School,” said FREA President Sue Vala. “The entire basement was sealed off to remediate the mold, and the maintenance department threw away everything that had been stored in our office.”
It wasn’t long before mold was reported in another school, and the district embarked on a comprehensive remediation plan.
All told, the remediation would cost the district $1.4 million.
But in addition to that, teachers lost supplies that they had accumulated throughout their careers. The libraries needed to be restocked. And the school district ended up delaying the first day of school because the buildings weren’t ready in time.
“Last year, I was hugely affected by the mold,” said kindergarten teacher Pam Minch. “I spent September in another room, and when I was returned to my original room I found out that the majority of my classroom supplies, books and manipulatives had been disposed of. A year later, I’m still discovering things that I’ve lost.”
The solution had also been temporary. In order to prevent future mold outbreaks, the district purchased industrial strength dehumidifiers and placed them in the halls of the school. Smaller units were placed in classrooms. There were other issues, as well, such as roofs that consistently leaked.
To permanently solve the problem, the superintendent and the board put forth two proposals. These would allow the district to fully repair each school building, install air conditioning and dehumidification systems, and upgrade security.
This solution wasn’t going to be cheap. It came with a $42 million price tag, and it had to be voted on by the residents in November.
In August, Anabela Tavares was sitting in a booth at the Flemington Diner mapping out priorities for the 2019-20 school year.
As FREA vice president, Tavares was acutely aware of the district’s problems with facilities and maintenance. She had heard about the superintendent’s proposal, and there was no question that one of FREA’s priorities for the year would be to make sure the referenda passed.
“I knew that with the support of NJEA our local could play a major role in passing these referenda,” Tavares said. “Our field rep, Brian, steered us in a positive direction from the very beginning, and I felt that winning was our only option.”
The association’s first Representative Council meeting in September focused on the issue. The superintendent was invited to make a presentation about the two proposals. As FREA’s UniServ field rep, I made a presentation about the politics of the issue and gave an overview of what steps the association could take to campaign for the referenda.
When Vala asked for a motion to support the referenda, it passed unanimously.
Later in September, Tavares and Corfield sat down with me to map out their campaign. Approximately 800 NJEA members lived in the district. In a low turnout election, that could go a long way toward ensuring victory. They set about figuring out what tools they could use to reach those members, talk with them about the referenda, and urge them to vote on Nov. 5.
Ultimately, they used a lot of tools from their toolbox. They pulled together staff support from throughout NJEA’s many divisions, but the success or failure of the campaign relied on their members’ willingness to do the hard work.
First on the list was an NJEA Pride in Public Education Grant, which is an excellent way to engage the community. FREA had a large Pride event scheduled for the end of September on Raritan Township Community Day.
Volunteers from FREA spent that Saturday morning staffing a table at the event. They gave away some great swag from the Pride store, including earbuds and hair chalk. They also spoke with community members about the referenda and explained its importance. Photographs illustrated the conditions inside the schools.
Many parents were there with their children. Vala was working at the booth when a child came up with his dad and pointed to one of the boards, saying “Look Dad, that’s MY school!” The pictures spoke for themselves.
“I still get goose bumps thinking about that,” Vala said.
Next up was phone-banking. It can be frustrating to call a list of people, because most of the calls go unanswered. But there is value in leaving a message, and if volunteers make enough calls, they ultimately speak directly with a considerable number of people. Of course, it helps if the phone numbers are accurate. This is why it’s important for NJEA members to keep their information up to date in their NJEA profiles.
The FREA brought phone lists and flip phones to their October and November Rep Council meetings. After they heard an update on the campaign, the reps volunteered to call these lists of other NJEA members in town. In November, the night before the election, they were able to connect with over 50 members. Almost every one of them said they would vote for the referenda.
The next tactic was canvassing neighborhoods. A small team of volunteers met at the Hunterdon County Education Association office in Flemington on Saturday mornings in October and November. They split up the map and set out to knock on the doors of their fellow NJEA members.
As luck would have it, that also meant visiting some of their students’ homes. Corfield’s turf included her own neighborhood, and her neighbors were happy to come to the door and speak with her. At one house, a little girl came to the door, looked through the window, and cried out, “Mommy! Mommy! My teacher’s at the door!” The girl’s mother came to the door, and it wasn’t hard to convince her to vote for the referenda.
Phone-banking and canvassing are great ways to reach outside of your local association and connect with other NJEA members in town. But there’s another tried-and-true method of talking with members: worksite conversations. FREA took a list of their own members who lived in Flemington, split it up by building, and assigned building reps to have a conversation with each member about the referenda.
They also enlisted some of the other nearby locals. Volunteers from the Hunterdon Central Education Association were a huge help, speaking with dozens of their own members who also lived in Flemington. Several other local associations pitched in to do the same. Taken as a whole, the 800 NJEA members living in town seemed too large to reach. But shared among many volunteers, they were easy to contact.
The week before the election, they used a final tool to reach out to members—a mobile app called Hustle. Hustle makes it easy to send text messages to hundreds of people. Four volunteers were able to text over 400 members in a matter of minutes.
To support their campaign on the ground, the local asked the NJEA Government Relations Division to develop a mailer that went out to every member in town. Corfield also wrote a letter to the editor, published in local media, explaining why the referenda were good for students. The NJEA Communications Division shared that letter from its NJEA Facebook page to increase its reach in the community.
All of this was tied together with a database called VAN—the Voter Activation Network. This database helped track the outcomes of conversations, create phone lists, sort members into locals for worksite conversations and map out members by neighborhood for canvassing. It’s a sophisticated piece of software, and it’s humming along behind the scenes of every modern campaign.
By Election Day, FREA had made numerous attempts to reach NJEA members living in town. They had tracked conversations with well over 200 of them and confirmed them as supporters. Their campaign combined hard work by their member volunteers with staff and resources from NJEA.
Each piece was critical to the outcome of the campaign. And as the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Nov. 5, Vala, Tavares, and Corfield sat in a conference room waiting to see if that outcome would be a success. They were joined by other FREA members, school board members, the district business administrator, and the superintendent.
“I knew we had worked hard,” said Vala. “But I kept thinking of what we could have done differently or better. I just kept hoping that it was enough.”
An hour went by. Results started to trickle in. Finally, just before 10 p.m., the results were clear: both proposals had passed.
They spent the rest of the night celebrating their victory, but the passage of the two referenda wasn’t their only success. FREA had put together a plan, executed it, and grown its power in the process. The next time a campaign comes around, they’ll be familiar with every tool in their toolbox, from canvassing to “Hustling” to worksite conversations.
That’s not to say that everything went according to plan. It was difficult at times to find volunteers willing to do the work. But those who did the work remained optimistic and they persevered. Now they know who they can count on and who needs to be supported or encouraged.
Every local association can do this work. Whether it’s a referendum or a school board campaign, you know what’s best for your schools. Leverage that expertise, along with the power of the NJEA members living in your community and go build your own victory.
Brian Rock is an NJEA UniServ field representative in the Region 13 office in Flemington. He can be reached at email@example.com.