A weekend interview with Marshall Ogletree, the new executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association
Marshall Ogletree went to school in Pinellas County and after college came back to teach here. Then he got into the business of advocating on behalf of teachers, working in Orange and Seminole counties before heading to the state teachers union. Now he's back as executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. He spoke with Times education reporter Donna Winchester about why he thinks teachers unions are important and the priorities that will guide him in his new job.
How did you get involved in teacher advocacy?
I’ve always had a strong political bent. I was a math major who took political science classes as opposed to science courses. When I got involved in the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association as a faculty rep and later as vice president, it was from a political point of view. PCTA then and now is one of the more active organizations in Florida from that perspective. When I was vice president, someone said, ‘Why don’t you look for a job in this business?’
Isn’t this a really difficult time to be taking on the job of executive director of a teachers union?
I know it’s going to be tough. This is a very difficult time for unions and school districts because of the lack of funding and the lack of support the Legislature has given us. I don’t care how they color it, this last legislative session was just a Band-Aid of major proportions. They’re going to have to face up to the fact that there are holes to fill because they’re building on the stimulus money and on taxes that are a declining source of revenue, like the cigarette tax. We have big holes to fill, not just in education, but in all parts of the budget.
The discussions we’ll be having this summer about salary and benefits will be constrained by that. We’ll try to do the best we can to make sure the district stands by its employees. We’ll fight for their needs. But it’s going to be difficult. I want our members to understand this is a time like no other. I’ve been doing this a long time, and there has been no time since I’ve been doing this work that we’ve had the problems and the financial situation we have today.
You were close friends with former PCTA executive director Jade Moore, who died in December. What did you learn from him?
When I was a union faculty rep and then vice president, Jade helped shape my opinions. I saw in Jade somebody who thought visiting schools and talking to our members was important. Jade also built bipartisan relationships. That was unique. I tried to model that when I went to Orange and Seminole counties. I learned the importance of that from Jade.
What will be your priorities as executive director?
My first priority will be to get a contract settled that will be fair to the members of both PCTA and PESPA. Clearly, our members deserve that. That’s the prime responsibility of a teachers union and support staff union. So that will be the first priority. Hopefully, that will happen soon.
Once school begins again, we’ll want to have our reps prepared. I want to be out in the schools as much as possible. Our members seem to appreciate that, even if they’re angry and frustrated. They need to know someone is working for them. I want them to know I’ll be working for them nearly 24-7. I think I bring some experience that will be helpful to them. I understand the retirement process, the bargaining process, the budget process. I think those skills will be helpful in solving problems in the district.
My priority will be to listen to our members and communicate with them. I think we always have to work on building stronger communication. Right now there is a lot of angst out there. There are some people who are upset about the contract. A lot of people don’t understand the process. They don’t understand what you have to do when the process fails. We have to listen to them. They pay their dues and they expect quality representation.
How important are teachers unions in this day and age? Would you say they’re as vital as they’ve been in the past?
I think in tough economic times, unions are more important than they’ve ever been. Throughout the state, and Pinellas is no exception, the immediate reaction of school boards is to say, ‘We have to cut pay. We have to cut hours or days.’ That is the immediate reaction. Without a union to say, ‘Hey, stop, wait a minute, let’s look at this,’ they can do whatever they want to do. The union’s role is to solve problems, to work on the contractual rights that folks have – their salaries and working conditions. Without a union, would there be a 40-hour work week? Would there be child labor laws? A 30-year-old teacher might take for granted duty free lunches and planning periods. But the fact is, we worked long and hard to get those provisions in our contract. Teachers have walked picket lines to get those things into contracts. It’s important for folks to know there’s a rich heritage here at PCTA. Times are tough, but look at what PCTA has done and will continue to do in the future.
Where do you see the teachers union headed? What will it look like a dozen years from now?
I think it will be vastly different. Times are changing, and the union has to change with them. I believe we will continue to work for teacher empowerment. Ultimately, the people who interact with the children are the teachers. Administrators can be helpful, but they don’t work six hours a day, 180 days a year, with children. Teachers need to have ownership in the accountability programs. I hope with a new president we’ll look at modifications to No Child Left Behind. Hopefully, Gov. Crist will be open to looking at education issues. We can build a better system for Florida’s children, not that we have a bad one, but we can’t stand pat and say everything is hunky dory, because it’s not. We have to work on the problem areas.
PCTA has some problem areas right now. People are concerned. They’re upset. They should love their jobs, but they don’t. I think some of the things that PCTA has done in the past aren’t appreciated. We have to go out and tell our story. At the same time, we have to listen to our membership and what it’s saying. It’s a changing dynamic.
As you’ve said, there is a lot of teacher angst among the ranks these days. What message do you have for Pinellas teachers as another school year ends?
The message I would give them is, first of all, I believe we’ve been able to save tens of thousands of jobs in this legislative session, not that everything is wonderful. We were faced with a dynamic where the budget could have been so bad that tens of thousands of jobs could have been lost statewide. I want them to understand that PCTA has been working for them in that dynamic. We’ve never had that kind of shortfall. I want them to know that we will work as diligently as possible for them. I want to listen to them. At the end of the day, they can call me, they can come by the office, we’ll sit and chat.
We’re going to try to make this association better. It’s always been great. They need to believe that their association is fighting for them. They need to know it’s always been fighting for them. I’m a new person here. I have to learn a lot about the intricacies of Pinellas County politics. But I do believe I have the knowledge and the skills. I’m just saying, ‘Give me a chance. Don’t make assumptions at this point in time. Watch, participate.