TMJH librarian runs for UEA presidency
Heidi Matthews is on a mission, albeit one she never anticipated.
The Treasure Mountain Junior High library information specialist has spent years filling important roles in both the Park City Education Association and the Utah Education Association. But it was only within the last year that she discovered a higher ambition. Now, she finds herself running for the top job of president of the Utah Education Association.
"I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘This is really what I want to do,’" she said. "But as my involvement in the association has grown, I’ve really come to value its place and worth in our education system in our communities and state."
Matthews declared her candidacy last month and is hoping to gain a groundswell of support before the primary election in February. She is one of two people currently running for the presidency, though candidates have until mid-January to file. The presidency is a full-time, paid position, so Matthews would be leaving Treasure Mountain if elected.
"I’ve probably been kicking it around for about a year," she said. "We don’t have a lot of really detailed documents at the UEA that define the campaign process. So I had assumed I would be declaring in late October, but another candidate declared very early, so I had to move that up a little bit."
Sitting in her office in the Treasure Mountain library, Matthews divulged her reasons for running. She sees the 18,000-member Utah Education Association is an important tool to help fulfill the promise of education for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.
"The value of a teachers association is something I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job publicizing," she said. "We’re on the front lines of making sure that these kids have equal opportunities, that there’s someone fighting for the funding that’s going to get them fed and in after-school programs and ready to learn at their best potential. I see that as a huge role for teachers associations."
Matthews has a long history of leadership in education associations. She served as president of the Park City Education Association from 2009 to 2012, and is currently the Utah state director of the National Education Association. In that role, she travels quarterly to Washington, D.C., to lobby for educational issues from a Utah perspective.
"Our job is to put a Utah face on legislation," said Matthews, who has been an educator for 26 years. "We say, ‘This is what it looks like in the classroom.’"
Speaking to Matthews for any length of time makes it is obvious that she believes education associations are important institutions, but she acknowledged that many don’t share that view. Education associations — or teachers unions — have been criticized in recent years for a perception that they value teacher tenure over everything else. But she said that’s simply not the case, especially in Utah, and it’s important that the public knows that.
She believes districts should be able to fire bad teachers, but also that teachers should be afforded due process in the event of a dispute.
"I think tenure is so misunderstood," she said. "We don’t have tenure in right-to-work states. But we do have due process. And that is a strong role of an association. That is good for kids — you don’t want teachers who can be fired capriciously. If a teacher is worried about losing their job, that’s going to impact kids."
She also counters claims against teachers associations by arguing that they are actually valuable for the community. She said Park City serves as proof that teachers associations and school districts can work together to improve the quality of education.
"We work with the district to look at working conditions and salaries — the things that attract the best possible teachers to the community and retain them," she said. "That doesn’t just happen without those conversations and negotiations that are sometimes really difficult. But what’s happened in Park City is the result of a strong association that has a good relationship with the district."
Matthews sees the role of the Utah Education Association president as, in part, ensuring the public knows more about what the association provides to Utah communities. But it’s also important, she said, to be able to stand up to education reformers for what the association views as best for students.
"While there are some great ideas that are out there, we need to be able to have a voice that says, ‘OK, this isn’t going to work, but this will and this is why,’" she said. "So it’s defending but also having something in place to offer."
But Matthews knows that the duties of the Utah Education Association president are more easily said than done. And when asked why she would be the best candidate for the job, she said she is best equipped to deliver on her campaign promises.
"It’s one thing to be a leader when you’re sitting still and behind a desk," she said. "But when you’re in a constantly changing, moving atmosphere, you’ve got to be able to anticipate, and you’ve got to be able to be a little flexible. That idea of dynamic leadership and kind of leadership in motion is my platform.
"I can’t believe how addicting it is to me to be able to see and affect change," she added. "I’m hoping I can carry that to our state association."
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Compensation is the largest issue left on the table after a contract governing most every other aspect of teachers’ employment was negotiated earlier in June.