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Arlington teachers union under interim leadership following internal turmoil

Former Arlington Education Association President Ingrid Gant delivers remarks during a press conference (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington’s teachers union will be temporarily led by its national association after the local organization’s executive board was ousted.

The move marks the culmination of a tumultuous year for the Arlington Education Association (AEA). A group of delegates to the AEA from every school site in the county voted last Wednesday to have the National Education Association — which represents educators and staff from public school through higher education — take the helm temporarily.

The interim trusteeship is in charge until the AEA holds an election later this month to select new executive board members. The board was previously led by President Ingrid Gant and had a vice-president, treasurer, representatives from the elementary, middle and high schools, and an executive assistant.

Some members tell ARLnow that frustrations had mounted recently as they were preparing for the upcoming election and for the introduction of collective bargaining. The Arlington School Board is gearing up to consider allowing salary negotiations later this spring.

The organization, sources said, effectively had stopped operating. Screenshots indicate the AEA’s website was down for most of February and March. (It now redirects to the Virginia Education Association website). They couldn’t reach anyone by phone or leave a message — a problem ARLnow has also run into — as the mailbox for the phone line was full. The meeting during which members were supposed to launch their executive board campaigns was canceled, raising doubts among members about the fairness of the election.

AEA had also picked up some negative press this year for publishing a press release with a number of grammatical and stylistic errors.

That these frustrations occurred as the possibility of collective bargaining drew nearer led the delegates to place their organization under a “protective trusteeship” on an emergency basis. In an email provided to ARLnow, the interim trustee from the NEA reassured union members that little would change with the new administration.

“We want to assure you that as members of the Arlington Education Association this trusteeship will not have an impact on your member benefits such as legal representation, liability coverage, or affect our ability to advocate for our students as part of the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association,” interim trustee Mark Simons wrote.

Problems plaguing the AEA go back even further, according to internal documents shared with ARLnow, which some AEA members said they also received. These documents reveal a battle between the AEA and the state union — the Virginia Education Association — over local control. The AEA and the VEA did not return a request for comment.

The Virginia union’s president, James Fedderman, told Arlington local members that he had concerns about governance and finances and was “committed to rectifying this situation with integrity and transparency.”

Former president Ingrid Gant had outlasted her tenure of two two-year terms and several executive board seats were appointed without a vote by delegates, he said, citing opinions he solicited from the NEA and someone certified to interpret parliamentary procedures.

He added that the union’s finances were in disarray and not communicated to members. Local leaders admitted the budget was disorganized in a memo to members, saying AEA began the 2021-22 fiscal year without a budget and owed $732,000 in dues to the state and national unions. Amid this, the treasurer resigned and a new treasurer was installed.

Fedderman said delegates had been “blocked” from receiving monthly budget reports, income and expense statements and membership reports, creating “an appearance of secrecy that is inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Then-treasurer Wayne Snider argued in the same memo to members that he held an in-person budget meeting that was sparsely attended and maintained office hours for anyone interested in reviewing the document. Delegates, however, told ARLnow this broke from AEA’s custom of distributing hard copies.

“These are obviously all serious governance issues, and I want to ensure that the members of AEA know how their Union is operating,” Fedderman said. “The elected leadership of AEA is entrusted to be responsive to every member, not just a select minority.”

AEA leadership argued that the state union had financial incentives — tied to waning local union membership — to step in. It recently voted to disaffiliate from the VEA and affirm Gant’s tenure lasted until June 30.

The executive board said dues from Northern Virginia unions contribute the lion’s share of the VEA’s budget. Facing a budget squeeze due to declining local membership, driven by retirements and resignations, the state union launched a “defamation campaign” against leaders of its local affiliates, the now-ousted executive board said in the memo.

“VEA thrives on membership. When members retire or resign, the monies begin to wane,” the memo said. “Presidents across Northern Virginia began to be defamed as ‘bad presidents’ because membership numbers were decreasing.”

The Arlington local said it lost more than 200 members from August 2020 to October 2021, going from 1,880 members to 1,663. That represented a drop in dues from about $1.2 million in August 2020 to $716,000 in October 2021, per the memo.

Responding to Fedderman’s letter, an attorney for the AEA said he was “trampling” on the union’s autonomy and did not have the authority to remove its leaders.

“AEA, not VEA, is part of this community; this community’s loyalty is to the AEA and its leaders, not to people in Richmond,” a labor attorney for AEA wrote to Fedderman. “I assure you VEA will not be seen as ‘liberators’ but will instead be seen as conquerors with eyes on a fountain of dues money. Do not be misled by handfuls of complaints you receive from disenchanted AEA members.”

Given the vote last week to cede trusteeship to the NEA, however, it appears that union leaders may have underestimated the disenchantment of rank-and-file members. Results of the election for new local leadership of the union will be tallied up at the end of this month and the new leaders announced in May, according to union members who talked to ARLnow.

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