Spotlight on Locals: Owen-Withee Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen presents Deb Smith, President of the Owen-Withee Education Association (OWEA), with the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate as members gather in support. Owen-Withee Education Association members (pictured from left to right): Gayle Baehr, Mary Meyer, Jeffer Scheuer, Ryan Gutsch, Jona Hatlestad, Mary Miami, Julie Plautz, Chad Eichstadt, Jodi Rahn, Pete Devine, Julie Kodl, Russ Weiler, Marilyn Jaskot, Denice Poetzl, and Sara Koller.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

According to teacher Russ Weiler, the strength of the Owen-Withee Education Association comes down to the focus on “students first and advocacy that puts students at the center of what we do.” “In the Owen-Withee Education Association,” Russ told me, “we have a lot of home-grown teachers who are involved in our community. We see our students in school and out of school, and we are always working to keep our schools and our community strong for our students.”   

Jodi Rahn, fifth-grade teacher, said strong communication is what makes the local so effective. Jodi said, “It’s easy for the membership and our leaders to connect with one another because we have leaders who are accessible to members as a whole. We run face-to-face meetings regularly, and we have building groups comprised of members and non-members where we work to discuss big ideas of what’s happening in the district.”  

When I asked Russ about a success story, he said, “The Owen-Withee Education Association is a wall-to-wall unit with members from the teacher ranks and the education support professionals ranks. I’m proud to have our ESP members with us in our local and that they have continued to re-certify, seeing the value in our union.” When I asked about membership numbers, Russ said, “We are around 60% membership for teachers and education support professionals. We’d like to reach the 65-70% membership threshold, and we keep working toward that.”  

“Our rapport with the school board has been another success story. Through our meet-and-confer efforts, we have seen movement on issues that matter to our colleagues and our students. Not everything that we discuss happens immediately, but through these conversations, we’ve been able to improve aspects of our school over time which really matter,” according to Russ.  

As far as successes, Jodi cited the association’s advocacy for compensation for hours beyond the regular school day. “We have been working to re-align payment scales for extracurricular activities, coaching and advising to remain competitive with nearby districts. We’ve also worked to fairly compensate educators for working summer school to continue to offer an excellent quality for our students and families. This was well-received by staff and really a win-win for all involved.”

Jodi offered this advice to other locals across Wisconsin: “Keep the lines of communication open with your members and make sure that you are honest and clear with them. Part of our success is that we have built a trusting environment. Also, listening is an under-rated skill. Leaders need to listen first and hear their members out, and then do their best to address their needs.”  

Russ said, “It only takes one person to get some important work happening in your local, then, you can recruit two, then four, through building connections with your colleagues. Locals need to lean on leaders for help like asking WEAC leadership, Regional leadership, and even nearby locals for advice and mentorship. We have been so fortunate to have strong leaders nearby in Loyal and Neillsville who have mentored us. I am very grateful to be a part of our union family.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.