The state’s largest teacher union, the Arkansas Education Association (AEA), has dismissed Tom Dooher, its executive director. Dooher was just hired in February of this year.
A veteran labor organizer and former president of the 70,000-member teachers union in Minnesota, Dooher came on board with an ambitious plan to revive the AEA, which in recent years has faced the threat of falling membership and a powerful education reform movement that’s often hostile to teachers unions. He was located via a national search last fall after Rich Nagel retired from the executive director job in summer 2013.
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But this weekend, to the surprise of both union staff and outside observers, the union’s 33-member board abruptly voted to terminate Dooher’s contract.
Dooher had a big vision for the AEA. He seemed determined to take the organization in a more assertive direction, hiring new staff with years of experience in Arkansas’s political scene and promising a renewed push for new recruitment and organizing. Dooher also imagined the AEA playing a bigger role in elections and policy advocacy; it’s said to have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a statewide organizing and field strategy for this November’s midterms. With control of the state House and the governorship (not to mention a Senate seat) hanging in the balance, the 2014 elections represent a pivotal moment in Arkansas’s partisan politics. A big ground game from the AEA could play a major role in the outcome of crucial races.
Brenda Robinson is president of the AEA, a position elected from union membership. She said she couldn’t provide details on the dismissal, because it is a confidential personnel matter.
“The only comment I can offer is that the AEA board of directors decided that top management needed to go in a different director,” she said. “We have now employed Rich Nagel as our interim director as we go back out there for an executive director search.” Nagel, who had held the directorship for 13 years before his retirement, said he’s hired on a 60 day contract with a possible 30 day extension, so the union will have to quickly find another chief.
Neither rank-and-file union members nor organizers at the National Education Association, the AEA’s parent group, were notified of the decision until after the closed-door vote by the board was over and done, according to sources. AEA staff expressed confusion and dismay at Dooher’s ouster after only seven months on the job – especially with it coming at the peak of election season. Sources said personality clashes played a bigger role than any specific disagreement over policy, but no details are clear as of yet.
Just yesterday, BuzzFeed reported on the NEA’s push to spend heavily on the midterms, including in Arkansas. Robinson and Nagel said that the AEA’s election strategy would not be affected by Dooher’s departure.
“Nothing changes,” said Robinson. “We’re moving on as we would as if he were here. We’re ready to forge ahead, organize and win this election. We’re committed to continuing to serve our members and the students of Arkansas.”
Nagel agreed. “Pedal to the floor,” he said.
Funding for education reporting provided in part by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.