Wicomico Co. Education Association Members Facing Lawsuit - 47 ABC - Delmarva's Choice

Wicomico Co. Education Association Members Facing Lawsuit

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WICOMICO CO., Md. – While many teachers are currently focusing on wrapping up the school year, in Wicomico County, more than 1,300 educators are finding themselves in the middle of a union dispute.

"It's unacceptable, unprofessional and unethical," says Kelly Stephenson, now the former president of the Wicomico County Education Association.

Stephenson and four other board members and officers were removed from office on April 15th. They reportedly found out from a notice dropped off at their home or in the mail.

"They changed all the locks, disabled the alarm system, they attempted to cancel life insurance policies, they also went to the bank and changed signatures on the bank accounts," says Stephenson.

After allegedly creating a petition behind the leaders' backs, a group of interim managers have taken over, claiming misconduct and malfeasance by the ousted leaders.

About a month before the change, Stephenson had announced an all-member vote over whether to amend the bylaws to no longer make state and national education association membership mandatory.

"There have been numerous concerns over the past 10 years not just in my presidency. They just don't feel they are being represented properly, by the Maryland State Education Association and their staff that is assigned to our local association," says Stephenson. "Another major factor would be the dues, the cost of dues is very high."

Stephenson says teachers paid a flat rate of just under $600 this year, and next year it will go up. She says the dues collected last year were $537,000, and this year, $543,000, but keeping the membership just within the county could be as much as $200 cheaper for each member.

However, according to a statement on WCEA's website, members "took necessary steps to prevent a small minority of members from dismantling the union with attempts to disaffiliate from our state and national Associations. The members have spoken and have declared that we are stronger together, and the support we have from the Maryland State Education and National Education Association adds to that strength."

47 ABC made numerous attempts to reach out to the current interim managers, but they declined to comment before the matter goes to court.

A spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, Adam Mendelson, says the all-member vote that Stephenson is attempting to conduct does not hold any authority. For an all-member vote to be able to amend the bylaws, the association's Representative Assembly, the groups' decision-making body, would reportedly first have to vote to delegate the authority to amend the bylaws in whole, or in part, to an all-member vote. Mendelson says that did not happen, and instead, the assembly voted to table any bylaw changes related to affiliation until the end of the next school year.

Mendelson also says there's a very wide-range of benefits to affiliation with the state and national associations.

"It goes from some of the things like negotiating contracts and ensuring that educators have the very best contracts and compensation, to ensuring that they have good representation," says Mendelson. "It also provides great opportunities for professional development whether it's job specific or for a position."

Now, the battle is going to court. A Salisbury-based attorney, Robin Cockey, filed a complaint on behalf of Stephenson and the four other leaders against nine association members and the Maryland State Education Association.

"The goal of the lawsuit is to restore leadership of the association to its elected leaders. The interim managers, the folks who are currently occupying the offices of the association, who are controlling its bank accounts, who have access to its mail, those folks were not elected," says Cockey.  "In our view they have no right to be doing any of these things."

Cockey also says the petition, which allegedly had more than 700 signatures, was not properly reviewed. Stephenson claims that some members signed twice, some signatures were of non-members, and certain members did not have an understanding of exactly what the petition was when they went to sign it.

"All of these things are not only improper but they are impeding the governance of the association at a fairly critical time, because the association is about to embark on negotiations with the Board of Education."

Mendelson also questions those in support of the associations' former leaders.

"I think some of the motives of those who are working on this issue are a little fishy."

There will be a hearing on May 1st in the Wicomico County Circuit Court at 1:00 PM.

"It really is disheartening that there's been so much division amongst members when it really didn't have to be, all it has to be is vote the way you want it and let's see how the vote comes out," says Stephenson. "I hope after all this we can continue to move forward and do what's right for educators but I think this is going to have an impact for years after this incident."

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