Cover story: Passing the Torch

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Cover story: Passing the Torch

In a not-so-normal summer

Voice: September 2017

It was a fairly typical summer at PSEA. The annual state budget drama was playing out at the Capitol, the Gettysburg Summer Leadership Conference was approaching, and the thermometer was soaring.

But it would turn out to be anything but normal. PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak was approached by Gov. Tom Wolf to become state secretary of labor and industry.

He accepted, and the dominoes started to fall.

Based on PSEA’s constitution and bylaws, Vice President Dolores McCracken became president on Sept. 2 to fill Oleksiak’s vacancy. And, in a hotel meeting room on the eve of the Gettysburg conference, the PSEA Board of Directors elected former treasurer Rich Askey as vice president and former Northeastern Region president Jeff Ney as treasurer.

Askey’s and Ney’s terms began on Sept. 2.

A few days ago, Oleksiak capped a 10-year career as a PSEA officer – four years each as treasurer and vice president, and the past two as president – and McCracken ascended to the presidency after four years as treasurer and two as vice president.

They both sat down with Voice.

VOICE: It is certainly a time of excitement, albeit unexpected. Jerry is the first PSEA officer to become a member of the governor’s cabinet, and Dolores has just become PSEA president.

OLEKSIAK: It is very exciting. It’s obviously challenging. And it’s a great opportunity – not just for me; it really speaks well of the entire Association.

It gives me a chance to continue to do what I’ve done all my life, which is to advocate for working men and women, and to take that to a different level.

It was not an easy choice to leave PSEA. My 10 years as an officer have flown by. I will certainly miss the people and the work – the people especially. But I am looking forward to what the next chapter will bring.

McCRACKEN: Well, here I am – unexpectedly. I’ve been fortunate in the work I’ve been able to do with PSEA, the training I’ve also received from PSEA, and to have had a mentor like Jerry Oleksiak. I had hoped that he would have continued that mentoring for another two years, but I understand he has a larger purpose now. Although somewhat selfishly, it would be great to keep him here representing 180,000 members and working for their families and the students we serve.

VOICE: Dolores, what are your priorities and goals as PSEA president?

McCRACKEN: I think we need to stay on the path that we’ve been on. A big one for me in that regard is equitable funding for public schools; equal resources for students.

I had an opportunity when I first became an officer of PSEA to visit a school in the Reading School District. It was surprising to me, having come from the Council Rock School District, to see the conditions of the buildings that those students spend their days in.

As adults, we need to send a better message to those students, and that is, “You need a safe learning environment, and you need to have the same resources that other children around the commonwealth get.’’

Another message we must send is that the constant attacks on educators need to stop – the blame game that educators are subject to. One of the things that we’ve worked very hard to do is change the tenor of the conversation.

For example, a press conference on too much testing a few months ago was attended by people from both sides of the aisle. That is a step in the right direction.

But there still are too many folks in the Legislature, and nationally with people like Betsy DeVos (U.S. education secretary), who view public education as the problem, where really it is the gateway and a bedrock of our democracy. This is very hard to swallow at times.

VOICE: There have been steps in the right direction regarding standardized testing – the state’s ESSA draft calls for less time spent on testing and using more measurements of academic performance, and the governor has announced an average 20 percent reduction in time spent on the PSSAs. Can you each speak to that?

OLEKSIAK: It’s long overdue. It’s great to hear the governor have that concrete example of a 20 percent reduction. Traveling around the state, from my beginning as PSEA treasurer, the number one issue for our members, as far as their classroom practices, has been the time involved in testing – time, time, time. It was always the dominant thing – they need more time to do what they should be doing with their kids.

We’ve been beating the drum on testing for a long time and, finally, we’ve had both sides of the aisle in the Legislature and the governor coming out and saying we need to reduce the time spent on testing. It takes a while sometimes; the wheels grind slowly, but we get there.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done over the years to make this an issue; not just for educators, but for parents and community members.

McCRACKEN: Testing isn’t teaching, and people are seeing that more and more. One of the things I find very interesting is that in talking to state legislators who are parents of school-age children, they talk about their households during testing time. It was something they were experiencing for the first time that we as educators have experienced for many years. It’s nice to know that they are now on board with the premise that this is not how we should be doing teaching and learning in our schools.

VOICE: Could you also address another major positive under Gov. Wolf – restoring state funding to public education? Since he became governor, the school funding increases he has championed have nearly erased the $1 billion in funding cuts enacted in 2011.

McCRACKEN: Gov. Wolf has made public education funding one of his top priorities. Since he has been governor, he has worked with the General Assembly to increase funding by $800 million. That is an extraordinarily strong commitment, and the need for a governor with that kind of commitment to our schools and students is more acute than ever.

I’m looking forward to working with Gov. Wolf to continue these investments and make sure that our students get the resources they deserve.

OLEKSIAK: Gov. Wolf understands that investing in our schools and our kids is a long-term investment in Pennsylvania. That is something I’m interested in in terms of my new position – working with our career and technical centers to develop more apprenticeship programs and more of a pipeline of kids to jobs.

McCRACKEN: In that regard, the governor realized that our career and technical students needed another pathway to graduation (the governor signed legislation last spring stating that career and technical students who pass the so-called NOCTI exam will meet graduation requirements even if they aren’t proficient on the Keystone exam).

OLEKSIAK: That is another thing PSEA has pushed for a long time – the NOCTI exam. To see it now in place is very gratifying.

VOICE: Dolores, another major issue facing a lot of education support professionals is the danger of subcontracting. In the past few years, PSEA has done a lot to fight against subcontracting good jobs. What are PSEA’s plans on this issue?

McCRACKEN: We will continue with our Rapid Response teams that we send into districts to support our ESPs when there is a subcontracting threat.

There is also legislation that we would certainly like to see passed to require school districts to be transparent in the bids that they receive and to ensure that a subcontractor must first offer employment to the employees of the district.

They also would have to show that there is an economic advantage to subcontracting, and not just in the first year.

VOICE: Jerry, as you look back on your time as a PSEA officer, what stands out?

OLEKSIAK: The amazing things happening in our schools. For me to have had the opportunity to travel around the state and to see those things has just been great. Our teachers and our support professionals don’t realize how astounding the things are that they do every day. You point it out, and they look at you like, “That is just what I do.’’ No educators ever hurt themselves patting themselves on the back.

VOICE: Jerry, talk about your vision for the Department of Labor and Industry.

OLEKSIAK: The department has a wide-ranging set of responsibilities – workforce development, workforce safety, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, the Bureau of Mediation. They are issues that matter to everyday people, and not always under the best of circumstances. If you get hurt on the job, if you lose your job, those are difficult times.

So, it is a department that can help people. It also connects people to job training, and job opportunities, and jobs for the future. One of the governor’s sayings is “jobs that pay.’’ I’m looking forward to doing those things.

VOICE: Dolores, what does having Jerry Oleksiak serve as secretary of labor and industry mean to you and PSEA?

McCRACKEN: We are so proud as an Association that the governor understood the work that Jerry has done all of his life supporting working families.

He will be fair. He will do the job that is required to be done in his role as secretary. And he will do it based on the values and beliefs he’s had his entire life.

VOICE: You two have known each other for a long time, and have a great personal relationship. So, Jerry, do you have any advice for Dolores?

OLEKSIAK: I’m very careful about giving Dolores advice (laughing). She doesn’t need a lot of advice.

But I guess the best piece of advice I could give her is a sign she sees all the time in my office, “This job is more than a good parking space.’’ I look at that often.

There are 180,000 PSEA members, and nearly 250 staff members. We are a large and dynamic organization. It’s important to remember that you aren’t going to please everyone with decisions that you make. But you have to make them. There are times when you have to say, “no,’’ and there are times when you have to say “yes’’ to things that are difficult to say “yes’’ to. You have to look out for the Association.

Remember, officers are dues-paying members, and we bring the voices of members to our positions. So, I guess my advice is to listen to the members, and don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions.

And it really is a good parking space.

VOICE: Fair is fair, Dolores. Any advice for Jerry?

McCRACKEN: In your 10 years as a PSEA officer, you have had the opportunity to speak to many members. I hope in your new role you continue to have those conversations, because as we all know, those conversations tell you what people need.

I know you will remember where you came from. And I would give you the advice a wise building principal once gave me, “Only pioneers take arrows.’’

VOICE: A critical election year is looming in 2018 in terms of re-electing Gov. Wolf, and re-electing and electing other pro-public education candidates. Can you speak to that?

OLEKSIAK: PSEA members have another opportunity to support a man who has a proven record of supporting public education and educators.

McCRACKEN: I talked earlier about changing the conversation that public education is failing our students. Part of that has been the lack of resources in recent years. If you take the resources away, you can say, “Our public schools are failing, and it’s the teachers fault.’’

What I hope our members will do is elect pro-public education officials. I don’t care if there is a D or an R beside their names. If we are going to influence policy and give educators the resources that they need for them to be successful and for their students to be successful, we need to elect pro-public education candidates, and Gov. Wolf has proven he is one of those people.

VOICE: Final thoughts?

OLEKSIAK: I loved being in the classroom (32 years), and I never thought I would leave the classroom. But I’ve loved every moment of working for PSEA. I hope I’ve given back to the Association as much as I’ve received.

I was not looking to leave PSEA. This opportunity came, and when the governor asks it’s hard to say, “No.’’ And I didn’t want to say, “No.’’ I feel very fortunate and honored to have this opportunity.

McCRACKEN: I never expected to be the treasurer of PSEA, let alone president. It was certainly never a plan; it just happened. I think that it happened because I believe in public education, and I believe in the work that educators do every single day.

Being here, and working with the incredible staff that we have and being part of a phenomenal leadership team, it’s only because of that that I have been able to do the things I’ve done within the Association.

I’m excited. I’m a little nervous. There will be a void with Jerry’s leaving, but the Board of Directors has helped fill that void with Rich Askey as vice president and Jeff Ney as treasurer. It’s a great team.