Slow help is no help for former AAE member

When Donna Wratten started teaching at Elba Public Schools in 2017, she felt like a brand-new educator. Yet she had begun her career in education twenty years earlier, teaching Life Science to freshmen at Grand Island Senior High.

“I wanted a job and Grand Island needed a science teacher. Since science is not my thing, we agreed that I would only teach Life Science on a one-year contract,” Wratten said.   

As with many new teachers, Wratten said her first year in education was difficult and at the end of the year she was burned out and ready to leave the profession. So, she opened a childcare center and managed it for the next 17 years. She returned to teaching after accepting a position with the Elba Public Schools District.

“I thought maybe it was time to get back into public education,” she said. “So, I did. I started teaching Business and Computers at Elba Public Schools. Two years later my grandchildren enrolled with the district and started busing from Grand Island.”

Wratten admits when she returned to teaching, she never gave joining the Elba Education Association or the NSEA much consideration.

“I just thought, ‘why do I need liability insurance?’ I come to school, I teach, and I was getting along with the students, so I just didn’t sign up,” Wratten said.

An unfair evaluation
Wratten loves teaching at Elba and describes herself as a team player, always willing to volunteer when help is needed.  

“Anytime anybody asks, I always step up,” she said. “I volunteer for a lot. I’m very involved with the school.”

Wratten was leading a technology committee when a relationship with a fellow teacher went south. Last year, that same colleague was appointed interim principal while Elba Public Schools searched for a new administrator. Wratten said things came to a head when the interim principal handed her an unfair evaluation.

“He didn’t have one positive thing to say about me,” she said. “Given our history, I felt having him conduct my evaluation was unfair.”

Wratten didn’t want the evaluation in her file. She knew she needed help and began looking for answers. Promotional materials provided by the Association of American Educators (AAE) touted similar benefits to NSEA but with a smaller price tag.

“AAE was cheaper, and they said they covered the same things as NSEA,” she said. “It sounded very appealing.”

Wratten called AAE and after a brief conversation with a representative about her situation she joined.  Only after she joined did Wratten realize the benefits and level of service provided by AAE fell far short.
Slow help is no help
After that initial call, Wratten was sent a confirmation email that stated that AAE had received her legal contact form. The form, Wratten was told, was still being reviewed and so she waited – and waited.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Wratten said. “So, ten days later I started emailing them and asked, ‘Are you going to help me here or not?’”

Finally, an out-of-state AAE representative replied to Wratten’s email acknowledging they had received her documents and asked if they had permission to find a local attorney to review her case.

“I emailed them back and said, ‘Yes, of course, but you know, that’s kind of what I’ve been waiting for.’ Then they went quiet again. I continued to wait and did not receive any updates,” Wratten explained.

Weeks passed and Wratten had yet to meet with an attorney or talk with anyone who had information or answers. Fed up with the delay, she scoured her phone for an AAE contact in Omaha whose number she had saved.

“So, I texted him and said, ‘I’m not hearing any updates on my case. Do you know what’s going to happen here?’” Wratten said. “At this point, we’re not that far off from beginning a new school year. This evaluation was from the previous school year. I didn’t want to start off the new year like this.”

Her Omaha contact put her in touch with yet another AAE representative. Wratten emailed her but said the process felt like déjà vu.

“It was like starting all over again. She was a new AAE person, and I had to explain the whole situation over again.”

The AAE representative eventually explained to Wratten that they were having trouble finding an attorney in her area. Additionally, Wratten was told she wouldn’t qualify for the AAE liability coverage for this matter. They told her this was due to her join date and because the other party involved was an AAE member.

“This is the part that really made me mad. AAE knew all of this when I joined,” she said. “I realize now that they just wanted my money.”

AAE eventually agreed to pay for up to $500 for a one-time legal consultation – but with a caveat. The nearest attorney AAE could find was in Lincoln and Wratten would have to make the two-hour drive for the meeting. Wratten said the attorney she was assigned didn’t offer much help.

“I wrote down a few things she said, but I had already known most of the legal tips she was giving me because I had already done some research myself,” said Wratten.

On her own
When August rolled around Wratten made the decision to take the matter to the school board. Wratten had already filed a formal grievance but acting on advice from a friend, Wratten sent a 10-page write-up explaining her situation to school board members.

“When it came time to actually go to the board meeting, I was told by the board that they could not help me because then they knew all the information,” Wratten said.

Frustrated by the lack of support and guidance Wratten decided to drop her AAE membership.

“I did not have any support. None at all,” she said. “I felt like I was kind of thrown out there to the pack of wolves to fight for myself.”

Value of NSEA Membership
When Wratten joined NSEA she said the difference in the level of advocacy skills, knowledge of Nebraska’s school laws, and responsiveness was immediately apparent. Wratten began attending Elba Education Association meetings and met with NSEA Organizational Specialist Jen Dubas.

“Jen answered a lot of the questions that I had. She was very informative. She knows our contract and has been there through the whole process,” Wratten said.

Dubas is one of 18 organizational specialists who work closely with local associations and members. Most of NSEA’s organizational specialists, including Dubas, are former teachers who understand negotiated contracts and salary schedules. With decades of experience and knowledge,

NSEA staff can help with anything from legal issues to professional development to communications skills training. They know your school district and are able to deal with superintendents, administrators, school boards and school attorneys on an equal footing.

“I feel like the support I’m getting now from NSEA is the support I should have been getting all along,” Wratten said. “I did not get this support from AAE.”

Wratten was able to include a 10-page write-up explanation to accompany the evaluation in her file. She has since had an evaluation conducted by a different administrator which Wratten feels was fair.

“I feel like I am on a more forward path now that NSEA has been there beside me,” she said.  “I now feel like I belong and I am not just a number. Looking back on the entire situation now, I feel AAE just wanted me to be part of their membership number statistics.”

“The NSEA has been the voice for Nebraska public education for more than 155 years,” said Dubas. “No other organization can come close to matching NSEA’s years of experience, member capacity or advocacy for public education.”