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Greater N.E.A. Voice for Support Personnel, College Faculty Urged

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Miami Beach--Paraprofessionals and college educators and support personnel should have a greater voice in the governance of the National Education Association, an interim report prepared by a special organizational committee of the union has proposed.

The report, released here this month at the association's annual convention, calls for guaranteeing representation for the minority constituencies on the n.e.a. executive committee.

The "streamlining" committee has not yet decided, however, whether to recommend accommodating the guaranteed slots among the current nine-member executive committee or expanding the body. In the former scenario, one seat each would be set aside for a representative from precollegiate instructional staff, support staff, and higher-education faculty.

Support personnel, higher-education professionals, and other minority constituencies also could increase their representation on the Representative Assembly, the union's massive legislative body, if the committee's proposals are adopted.

Currently, some state associations count national members toward their delegate allocations to the assembly even if those members do not belong to the state association. The streamlining committee proposes that such members, many of whom are paraprofessionals, be entitled to run for delegate slots.

The streamlining committee was created in December 1989 in part to deal with the union's increasingly diverse membership.

While educational-support staff and higher-education faculty are considered to be the most promising areas for union growth, leaders are concerned that growth could be stunted unless a better balance is struck between the traditional dominance of elementary and secondary classroom teachers and the influence of other constituencies.

The streamlining committee's final report is due to the board of directors next February and to the Representative Assembly in July. But, given the union's lengthy and complex procedural rules, any initiative requiring action by the Assembly is not expected to occur before July 1993.

Modified Dues Structure

Although educational-support personnel would make some strides under the committee's proposals, they would pay a price.

The panel tentatively recommended a modified dues structure that would base charges on salary rather than job classification. The change would directly affect only dues paid to the national organization.

Currently, support staff pay half the dues paid by instructional staff. Under the new plan, however, all active members earning $24,000 or more annually in base pay would pay full dues. Members earning $18,000 to $23,999 would pay 75 percent, while those earning less than $18,000 would pay half. The salary schedule would be revised periodically.

"There are support-staff members who make more than beginning teachers," said Robert F. Chase, the union's vice president and chairman of the streamlining committee. "We are looking for a way to have some equity."

As the report points out, though, the state associations receive the lion's share of members' dues. Consequently, "changes in the n.e.a. dues structure would not in and of themselves have significant financial impact" unless they cause a ripple effect, the report notes.

The report also calls for enlarging the pool of eligible members. Employees of state education departments, for example, would be eligible for active membership, as would those who work for private higher-education institutions and all those whose primary function is to teach--whether in public schools, prisons, or mental hospitals.

Healing a 'Sore Point'

While embracing a broader membership base, the panel also sought to heal what the report refers to as a "sore point" between the national union and its state affiliates.

Under the committee's proposals, the national organization would no longer accept members who are ineligible for state membership, nor would it affiliate a local unless it was made up predominantly of workers who were eligible for state membership.

Such a policy, however, would not prevent the national body from affiliating locals. For instance, if the state union was uninterested in organizing higher-education faculty, the national organization could do so as long as the state recognized such members.

In large measure the action stems from the national body's inability to provide adequately all the services the state affiliate ordinarily offers. Despite acknowledging the national organization's limitations, the streamlining committee could not reach a consensus on how to serve the n.e.a.'s approximately 30,000 active members who are not also members of a state affiliate. The panel did, however, reject the idea of forming a separate national affiliate for educational-support personnel and higher-education faculty.

For logistical and cost purposes, the committee suggested capping the Representative Assembly at 10,000 delegates. Given the size of the annual convention, site selection is already limited, and officials fear that, if it grows larger, the union's choice of cities will shrink substantially.

One provision put forward by the streamlining panel was also approved by delegates to the convention this month. It amended the constitution to change terms of office for executive officers from three two-year terms to two three-year terms. The terms are in line with those of other executive-board members.

As a result, Keith B. Geiger, the union's president, and Mr. Chase, who were unchallenged in their bids for their second two-year terms, would be the only president and vice president of the union to hold those offices for seven years if they choose to run again and are victorious.

Merger Debate Avoided

The n.e.a. averted what one official predicted would have been a "blood bath" when a delegate from California withdrew a proposal coupling the union and the American Federation of Teachers in several ventures.

Under the plan, the smaller union affiliate in a school district with collective bargaining would have been absorbed by the larger union. Furthermore, the measure called for a moratorium on raiding each others' locals.

Another provision urged that the two national unions launch a joint organizing campaign across the South to win collective-bargaining rights.

The delegate, Ben Visnick, said in withdrawing the measure that he had not been aware that the items were under discussion by the board of directors. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)

National, state, and regional leaders worked behind the scenes to per8suade Mr. Visnick to drop his new business item. National officials feared its defeat by the Representative Assembly would have soured the flourishing relationship between the n.e.a. and the a.f.t.

"It's too early for us to have that discussion [among delegates] at the national level," Mr. Geiger said.

An a.f.t. official also said putting the measure to a floor vote would have been premature.

In his speech to the convention, Mr. Geiger called for a "bill of rights for children," which he said he would send to President Bush and the Congress.

The five rights he outlined are: "plentiful and nutritional food"; "medical attention to any child in need"; "the basic security of a place to live"; "a quality education"; and a government that safeguards children from abuse, violence, and discrimination.

The rights, Mr. Geiger said, were consistent with the national education goals set by Mr. Bush and the governors, which state that, by the year 2000, every child will begin school physically, emotionally, and academically ready to learn.

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