Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin
WI Education Association Council Organizer, Retired
“When Gov. Walker signed that bill, teachers lost all of what we all had worked for. ”
Jermitt began as a teacher in Hartington, Nebraska, a mostly rural community. From the start, he had wanted to work with schools and kids in poverty. “When I was growing up, my family was probably one of five real poor families in our community. My dad had polio when he was a kid, but he worked hard. He initially worked for a gas station. Along with that, he did some youth work with kids in the small community. In the wintertime, he kept the ice rink open.”
Jermitt and his wife moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he got a position teaching science and language arts. “I didn’t know anything about this inner city school, other than a little bit through word of mouth. I knew it was a difficult assignment. The kids were great, but my class sizes were huge. My smallest class was 35 and my largest was 38. I had six classes a day, one prep period. I found the conditions of that school to be terrible. There were no materials or equipment for teaching science, no books for teaching science. It was atrocious.”
At the same time, they were tearing down homes where my students were living to build a freeway. These children had no place to live. The people in the suburbs wouldn’t allow them to move into their neighborhoods. At that time, there were no housing laws which restricted that. So two and three families were moving into single family homes. These kids had a lot of hurdles to overcome.
I thought I had to get to know some of the parents, so I started making home visits on my own after school. The more I did that, the better my relationship with the kids became. This really helped me to be a good teacher in that system. Now because of the housing situation and because our school was so poorly equipped and class sizes were so large, I started organizing the parents.
A year later, a colleague and I showed up at a board meeting to get support from the school board. We had about 400 parents and teachers to support our efforts to approach the state legislature to get money for those schools. The board decided to support us. Sen. Martin Schreiber help write a bill, and the legislature passed it.
We received about $17 million which was a lot of money for these two middle schools and the feeder schools. The next year, they hired an additional teacher, and reduced my class to twenty students per class. In addition, the school received new equipment, new lab tables and new books for the library. It was really a blessing in many ways that people were able to coalesce around their school.
How would you define your role in that effort?
Probably as an organizer. I was 32 at the time. To me, as I look back, it was probably a turning point in my career. That gave me exposure to the Wisconsin Education Association Council [WEAC]. They asked me to come to work for them, I think primarily because of that activity. It was a hard decision to make, because I loved these kids, they were great.
At WEAC, I would be responsible for handling the grievances and other issues teachers were facing across the state. Teachers who were getting dismissed or non-renewed, initially had no rights. We had no contracts to speak of at the time. There wasn’t a contract in the state that had a just cause standard or tenure or grievance procedure…so there was no standard for dismissing teachers or non-renewing their contract. And there was a lot of age and gender discrimination.
Women didn’t have health insurance while male teachers did. They had no right to take maternity leave. If you were pregnant and you were there more than three months, this was grounds for dismissal. Teachers had to tell the district after three months that you were pregnant. A teacher had to leave her job, and there was no guarantee that you were going to get that job back or any other job. You’re out.
There was a teacher that lost his job because he complained about the condition of his classroom. Electric sockets being worn and dangerous, light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, snow blowing in his windows. He got non-renewed. There was another teacher who allowed black people to stay in his home when the black people were marching from Milwaukee to Madison to gain support for new housing laws. He was non-renewed. Unbelievable stuff. So we begin challenging some of those things. My job at that point in time was to represent teachers who would be non-renewed.
WEAC hired an attorney to work with me. We used the law when we could, but there wasn’t much out there to use. Saving a teacher’s job depended on people organizing around that teacher. It was common to get a couple hundred people out to support a teacher at a non-renewal, even in these small school districts. We had to handle 72 non-renewals that spring. We got all but about 15 of them back. I think a lot had to do with the way we approached it. We were basically low-key, non-threatening, trying to build an understanding of what the situation was and did problem solving.
I think the major change that took place was when we began to have contracts. We had staff out there bargaining contracts, including myself. That was a major shift in our ability to represent people. Prior to the late 1960’s, I don’t think the organization really had an interest in bargaining contracts. It was then that teachers began to have a master contract that included due process and some job protection
I think it’s a matter of bringing these things out into the open. It is important for individuals to see it is in their self-interest to be involved. They need to understand there were inequities taking place. By encouraging them to get involved, they begin to see that there is a way that these things can be resolved. But they’re going to have to do it for themselves. It can’t be somebody outside that’s going to do it. We can only teach them. We can only help them to get organized.
[My conversation with Jermitt occurred several weeks before the 2012 vote to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and three senators]
As you talk about this, I can’t help thinking about what’s going on in Wisconsin right now.
When the governor signed that bill, teachers lost all of what we all had worked for. Contracts that included some job security and due process were taken away. Teachers lost their ability to have any flexibility in the classroom except when given permission from the administration or school boards. Gone, just like that. Just like that.
They lost their just cause standards, their grievance procedures; they lost any kind of seniority they had. I hated what was happening. I saw forty years or longer of work go right out the window. So I was upset, very upset. I was up there [demonstrating in Madison] with everybody else. I took my grandchildren. But I think I could have forecast what happened. I think our organization, the WEAC, made some mistakes.
They could have prevented it?
I think so. I mean, I saw it coming a long time ago. I’ll be open with you about this. For about ten years, we had a core of people that I was working with, primarily school administrators and teacher leaders. We were providing in-service training, basically around relationships and collaboration. And we were doing this at no cost. I thought that was a wonderful way of building a capacity between us and our members as well as us and the districts. We were doing quite well.
The organization, at the same time, had what was called a Professional Development Academy. They were basically training people around being a better English teacher or a better math teacher; they thought I was in conflict with them.
They would pay, oftentimes, outside people to do it. I, the staff people and teacher leaders who were doing the in-service training around relationships, around collaboration, were doing it at no cost to the district. I think it was about ten years that we were doing this. Then we had a change in management of our organization.
They said we couldn’t do it anymore. So that whole thing fell apart. But we were beginning to establish a really good, positive relationship with a lot of school districts, lot of school board members, lot of school administrators, who some of them are good friends of mine today. We were providing a service that these districts really needed. It really helped the teachers in the classroom, because now they begin to understand how to work with their coworkers.
Sometimes they had worked with the coworker for 20 years and didn’t know who they were, but through this training, they would begin to understand who they were, what their skills were. All district staff were trained on dialogue, consensus, decision- making. So if we would have kept those kinds of activities going we could have built a better relationship with school districts.
But I think when they put a cap of 2 % increase in the budget for local school districts, had an impact with the relationship at the executive level. At the same time, they began pulling back the programs I was involved in. So instead of pushing forward with building those relationships, it was just a matter of time and things changed. There was going to be some impact.
This has been quite an impact.
Yeah, it was. I think the organization was basically relying on contract law to get what they wanted to get. It backfired on them. How it backfired was, you have a politician who said, “Teachers are getting too much money. They have too much insurance.” And he used all that stuff to build his basis for support. WEAC spent a lot of money for PR. WEAC was spending half a million dollars a year or more with television ads.
What we needed to say was, “Get your teacher leaders out there, get your staff out there, build those relationships with parents, with the key leaders in those communities, and then if when something like this to happens, you’ve got support from parents and the community”.
I’ve been working the last 11 years in Casper, Wyoming, where we basically changed the governance structure of that school district to where it’s no longer just a school board that makes those decisions; they have a cadre of stakeholders who are doing it. Collaborative teams at the building level. That district had been in a lot of trouble. Relationships were terrible. It got to that point where people were afraid for their lives.
By getting parents and others involved in this, they now had a way of building a capacity to change the way that district had been operating. They’ve gotten a whole raft of things done system-wide, now. So now at the building level, this collaboration’s going on. Decisions by consensus. It could’ve happened here in Wisconsin.
Is what Walker put into place reversible?
It’s going to take time. It’s reversible, but it’s going to take time.
You could be talking about a whole generation of kids.
You are. They’ll keep the schools open, but you can’t reduce these school districts budget by 10% and expect them to do the same kind of work.
What do you think he’s up to?
My sense is that not only this Governor, but other governors and people at the state level want to reduce the capacity of public education. I think they want to move that money to private schools where they feel that kids can use it better, kids who are prepared for school, who can come out better educated. And let the rest go.
It’s that cold?
I think it is. I think it’s that cold. A lot of these school districts are already losing programs, and in some cases good teachers. We saw a huge migration of teachers from the profession last year, and many of those were really good teachers, and some of them were not replaced. My granddaughter graduated this last year in education, was prepared to go into a school, as a special education teacher. She said “No, I’m not going to do it now”. She’s getting her master’s degree in public policy. She would have been a beautiful teacher.
What do you see as the Goliath in this situation?
I think it’s the systems themselves that are in place. I think if we could change the way systems look, no longer have a top down, but balanced power between the various stakeholder groups. And I think another Goliath is what I consider the “power of the position.” When people move into power positions, they take on that role of being the dictator or the Goliath. If they can see their role differently, if they can see their role as a collaborator, as a facilitator of collaboration, as an organizer, I think then we could get more support.
You’ve been at this for a long time. What it is that you’ve been fighting for all these years?
Equity. I see so much unfairness out there as it comes to how people are treated. It hurts me when I see someone being discriminated against in any form. I’d like to see a more equitable society. It’s a huge dream that I have, and I know I can only play a small part of that, so here I am.
Playing your part.
I’ll be 79 years old this summer, and I’m still pushing.