A weekend interview with Nicholas Whitman, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association
How did you wind up here?
I spent about the last 20 years, to be honest with you, working in various capacities with organized labor. About eight years ago, my girlfriend -- who's now my wife -- started coming to the Florida area to vacation. We had a time share on Madeira Beach and we would come down a couple of weeks a year. And certainly loved the area and loved the state of Florida, for the weather and all that good stuff. Then I just happened to start looking, exploring what options were out there for new challenges after being in the Racine area for a while. I saw that there was a position open here in Hillsborough County. Then just keeping that in the back of my mind I started doing an electronic newspaper clipping search. And there was a lot of stuff that kept coming back about positive collaborative working relationship, early reports about interest in the Gates Foundation grant. ... My former managers in New York knew Jean Clements, who was and is the president here. So all those streams came together to convince me to apply for it.
This is a pretty big district. And I know Racine is not exactly huge. Does the job you do change because you've got so many more people you're dealing with?
It's dependent on whether you look at the positions of responsibility. I was the executive director for the entire state organization in New York, the National Education Association's New York affiliate had about 45,000 members. So comparatively speaking, I had staff I was responsible for overseeing in 10 offices. ... In terms of the scope of things, this job isn't any larger of a responsibility than that one was. Similarly after the NEA and AFT merged in New York, I became the exec director for the entire state of North Dakota Education Association. And so again, being responsible for staff and members across a state. ... This isn't the largest job I've been responsible for.
When you work up north, teachers can do things like strike. Here they can't. So I imagine the things you're able to do in negotiating changes a bit. Let me correct you on that. ... In New York, it is illegal to strike. During the time I was there, some locals did strike. It is the ultimate expression of frustration. Because in New York it is illegal and any member that goes on strike loses two days' pay for every one day they're out on the picket line. ... Wisconsin, strikes are illegal and there hasn't been one there for at least a decade. And North Dakota is very similar to Florida in that not only are strikes illegal, but it's also a right to work state just like Florida is. So like here in Hillsborough, we worked and bargained on behalf of all employees, but they are not obligated to be members.
What do you see as the things that challenge you the most in this new position?
Well certainly the economic problems that public education ifs facing in general in Florida because of the limits on funding the Legislature has put on them. Cut down to brass tacks, we can't negotiate for money in Hillsborough County that the Legislature doesn't provide for them. That's going to be obviously an ongoing problem as long as the economy remains in a recession, particularly in a state that relies so heavily on the sales tax and property tax for its funding. Those are segments that are probably going to lag even beyond when the recession starts to ease. .. I think that's going to be long term the challenge we have to face the most.
On the flip side ... for the past two years in Racine the district and the union participated in a collaborative relationship that was facilitated by something called the Panasonic Foundation. We put together in Racine an initiative called North Star, and it was a closing the achievement gap initiative. ... It kind of just exactly flows into some of the things that both CTA and the district were talking about in terms of their collaborative pursuit of the Bill and Melinda Gates money.
Do you see that it's hard to keep your members happy when it's hard to come up with money?
What I think I can say to that is it seems to me that Hillsborough is like other places I have worked in that when money is tight, they are willing to focus on things that improve their quality of work life and their professional development. So where there might not have been enough money to pay for steps on salary schedule and provide a raise this year, what they did in effect by shifting up the days and not having to work on Thanksgiving allows them the flexibility to spend the time with their families.... The addition of the five early release days gives them the increased common planning time. Whether you're in the northeast, midwest or here, teachers will tell you what we need is more time to work with our colleagues. ... Those are hugely important to our members. ...
I have read some things where they say the teachers union is one that is on the wane ... and that Obama is one of the people who is not supporting everything the teachers want. Where do you see the teachers unions' long-term role?
... My own reading and my own research -- I am a labor historian, that is what my undergrad work is in -- I tend to believe that whatever happens in the private sector, the public sector ... are going to be the bulwark against the privatization of things going forward. The other piece of that is, I would differentiate between something like Obama's initiatives and some of those early initiatives that were created by Jeb Bush here in that it emboldens and bolsters the role of the teacher unions. Whereas ... a lot of Jeb Bush's initiatives were, yes, innovative, but they were designed to do things to teachers or teachers unions. Whereas particularly President Obama and Arne Duncan's work is saying, We have this innovation. We need the teachers union either to sign off or to be a party to the creation of, say, the grants that are going to be handing out this Race to the Top money. ...
In some counties, you hear a lot of people saying, Why do the teachers think they should get something that we in the community don't get. ... Do you see that happening in Hillsborough?
... I have not gotten any sense of that here. I have been to two board meetings now, I have been in close to 10 of the schools. I was at the superintendent's back to school press conference. In all of those settings ... I haven't gotten a sense of that. I certainly have historically noticed that. I started my career representing teachers in rural northwest Wisconsin. The message there was, We are hard-working farmers. We'll never have the insurance benefits that teachers have, for example, or the state retirement that teachers have. ... Racine is a typical Midwest rust belt town. ... There was a period not too long ago when there was a focus on, How can you go to the table and ask for these increases when the community is losing jobs and people are moving away? But again, I think with the union showing an agreement, an openness to accountability measures, to updating their approaches, to being open to new ideas and research based teaching methods, I think that era even in Racine was on its way out if not completely gone by. In my brief time here, I have seen a contrast. ... I have not seen or heard that here in Hillsborough.