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N.E.A. Members Predict High-Stakes Race To Succeed Geiger

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New Orleans

As members move toward a crucial year that could ultimately change the face of the National Education Association, they are anticipating the beginning of a high-stakes campaign for the leadership of the 2.2 million-member union.

The N.E.A., which is expected over the coming year to hammer out a merger proposal with the American Federation of Teachers, is now headed by Keith Geiger, whom many in the rank and file view as the force behind the push for national unification of the two rival unions. (See story on opposite page.)

But, with some people predicting a showdown over the merger issue next year, candidates vying to succeed Mr. Geiger in 1996 will have to plan their moves carefully in a sensitive political climate, said delegates attending the union's four-day annual meeting here last week.

Moreover, some sources pointed out, the campaign approaches as the union is under increasing attack from proponents of private school choice and for-profit companies seeking to manage public schools.

Several delegates claimed that the union's leaders have not charted a clear course for the organization in one of its most difficult periods.

"I think the union kind of needs to regroup--refocus our energies on action rather than rhetoric,'' Susan Stitham, one of Alaska's delegates to the N.E.A. Representative Assembly here, said.

Nearly a dozen union members interviewed last week speculated that the race for president would be between Robert F. Chase, the vice president of the N.E.A., and Marilyn Monahan, the union's secretary-treasurer.

But neither leader officially could confirm those predictions. Candidates, who typically announce their bids for office at the assembly the year before the elections, are prohibited from campaigning before that meeting.

The election is scheduled to take place at the union's 1996 Representative Assembly, when Mr. Geiger's third term in office will expire.

A Turnaround on Terms

Mr. Geiger, who was elected in 1989, served two consecutive two-year terms and is now serving a third term lasting three years.

The union adopted a policy allowing officers to serve three consecutive two-year terms during the tenure of Mr. Geiger's predecessor, Mary Hatwood Futrell, who frequently is described as the most popular president in N.E.A. history.

In 1992, however, the union altered the term policy so that top leaders could serve a maximum of two three-year terms, a move that was designed to bring officers' elections into line with those for the executive committee, according to N.E.A. staff members.

While the changes have caused some confusion in the union's ranks--Mr. Geiger will serve an unprecedented seven years--delegates already are gearing up for what many say will be a tumultuous election.

In addition to the three top union offices opening up, several other seats on the nine-member executive committee will be available, according to Dennis Van Roekel, who was re-elected to the committee this year.

Several delegates here said there is increasing pressure to elect a woman to the top post. About 70 percent of the union's members are women.

Ms. Futrell, the most recent female president, is remembered by many here as a dynamic leader who helped position the union as a prominent player in education reform--an issue that could influence the way members vote in the election.

A group of delegates at a women's-caucus meeting last week complained that their power had been diminished over the past several years and intimated that a woman president would be more sympathetic to their causes.

A Political Track

Other delegates said the union's membership is likely to promote a candidate who has served as the vice president, although Ms. Futrell was the secretary-treasurer before she was elected to the top spot.

Mr. Geiger--who prevailed in a tight race for his first term against John I. Wilson, then a member of the executive committee--was the N.E.A.'s vice president in the 1980's.

Both Mr. Chase and Ms. Monahan are from New England states--Connecticut and New Hampshire, respectively--another detail that could make this an unusual race if they decide to run.

Delegates usually vote for the candidate from their region, union officials said. If delegates' predictions are on target, the race could divide New England and make other regions a tossup.

In addition to their forecast for the presidential race, delegates said they expect Reg Weaver and Leon P. Horne, both members of the union's executive committee, to be candidates for either vice president or secretary-treasurer.

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