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The History of the Wheaton Warrenville Education Association

by Kathy Wessel, IEA-Retired (former WWEA president)

The Wheaton-Warrenville Education Association was chartered in 1972 with Mary Lee Ferensen, a first grade teacher, as president. Originally known as the Wheaton Warrenville United Education Association, the group’s history goes back much further. Long time WWEA/IEA teacher, leader, and activist Gary Kline recalls that when he came to Wheaton in 1963 there were 3 school districts serving the communities of Wheaton and Warrenville—District 36 was a k-8 district in Wheaton, District 31 was a k-8 district in Warrenville, and District 95 was the high school district serving both communities. Teachers in each school district had their own teachers association.

Gary recalls that in 1963, “…teachers were moving away from the ‘tea and crumpets’ mentality. Shortly after arriving, I learned the teachers had attended a February Board of Education meeting in mass to protest the lack of progress in negotiations for the following year. My kind of place, I thought. After getting $150 on the base salary rather than the usual $100, things were settled. The following year I attended a meeting where the salary proposal was presented. I already felt I was grossly underpaid. That, coupled with the newly gained knowledge that teachers in my sister high school district 95 were getting an additional $100-$200 on their base salary, put me in no mood to hear what I did. The chairman of the Professional Negotiations Committee indicated that they probably could have gotten more, but in the interest of maintaining a rapport with the Board, they had agreed to the proposal. When I commented ‘to Hell with the rapport, let’s get more money’, I was told if I didn’t like it, then get involved. This marked the beginning of my long time involvement in the teacher’s association. I became the first of a long line of WWEA leaders not to use it as a stepping-stone to an administrative position. The usual progression was from PN Chair to President to principal.”

The late 60’s and early 70’s was a time of organizational growth for the WWEA. Leaders such as Gary Kline, Mary Lee Ferensen, Mayno Luetkehans, Robert Barrell, Nile Motter, and Robert Leadbetter were instrumental in developing the WWEA into the dynamic, effective, powerful organization it is today. The first DuPage County UniServe Director was Bruce Lund, and later Bob Lahde, who served what was then IEA Region 15, also assisted. Negotiations during this time became increasingly difficult and teachers became more and more militant. There was, however, quite a dispute among those who referred to the WWEA as a union and those who preferred to call it a professional association. During this time the WWEA was able to achieve major victories in benefits, salary and working conditions.

By the fall of 1980 the relationship between the Board of Education and WWEA had deteriorated. The school year began with a 2-day strike. Both days were institute days so students did not miss any school. That did not make the situation any less traumatic for teachers who stayed strong and united. The strike ended early in the morning of the first day of school with a much-improved contract for teachers.

During this time the WWEA also formed the Wheaton Warrenville Political Action Committee for Education. WWPACE became very active in school board elections and legislative races. Most WWPACE endorsed school board candidates were, and continue to be, elected, as the community turned to teachers to help stabilize an often-dysfunctional Board of Education. WWPACE has also strongly supported numerous district referenda attempts.

1982 was another difficult year for negotiations. The Board did not seem anxious to settle the contract and another strike occurred. This time students missed several days of school, but again teachers remained strong and united. Again, the settlement brought gains in salary, benefits and working conditions for teachers. The 3-year contract was a definite victory.

In 1985 the Board of Education and the WWEA agreed to try a new method of negotiations. After much discussion, Irving Goldhaber, author of the WinWin negotiations method, was hired and brought to the district for negotiations. Unfortunately, Wheaton-Warrenville became his first failure. Another strike followed and it was extremely bitter, lasting 6 days. The community became involved and the Board decided to open some of the 18 buildings on the 4th day of the strike; then on the 5th day some more buildings opened. A few teachers crossed the picket lines, and scabs were hired to staff buildings. When a settlement was finally reached teachers entered the buildings wearing ‘Real Teacher’ buttons. Again, the WWEA and the contract came out of the strike stronger than ever.

In the fall of 1985 two events took place that changed the course of the district and the WWEA. The superintendent was fired and the WWEA managed to help elect a new school board that was interested in improving the relationship between the Union and the Board. The following year a contract extension was bargained, a new superintendent was hired, and the WWEA began the School Board Communications Committee. The committee, divided into 7 groups, met with individual school board members to discuss issues of common interest. It was truly a lobbying effort but WWEA members didn’t like the sound of the word, thus the Communications Committee.

While negotiations in the district have never been easy, both sides have worked hard to reach a settlement without a strike. During the 90’s collaboration was tried and continues in a small way today. Presidents Gary Kline, Robert Leadbetter, Kathy Wessel, Linda Dvorak, Lindy Greenlee, and Bryce Cann (elected 2007) have lead the WWEA through a variety of grievances, negotiations, school board elections, and organizing activities. Again they were ably assisted by IEA UniServ Directors Jerry Babel, Bob Ray, Barry Tusin (starting in 1987), and Tom Terranova (starting in 2006). In the 80’s the WWEA’s sister organization, the Classified Employees Association, was formed and the two groups work closely on many common issues. In 1993 the WWEA won IEA’s prestigious Bob Mercer Strong Local Award.

While struggles continue, the WWEA continues to be a strong, respected, and effective advocate for teachers.