More than a dozen rank and file members of the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA), the state’s largest labor union, have officially come forward to challenge the results of January’s election to fill positions on its Executive Board.
According to emails shared with the Delaware Call, including those cited below, DSEA members have written to administrators to officially contest January’s election results. While the final numbers are not public, they have been shared with the current Executive Committee and the candidates themselves.
The executive board is conducting an in-person meeting at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 4 at Dover High School. This meeting, according to those objecting, is meant to hear the challenges and potentially certify the results.
This isn’t the first time that the integrity of a DSEA Executive Board election has been called into question. According to a separate February 2017 email obtained by the Delaware Call and authenticated by multiple sources, members were advised of a runoff vote for board president because the initial tally resulted in a tie between Karen Crouse and Michael Matthews. The email is from “DSEA Management Team” and stipulates that, “(c)oncerns have been expressed about the process and procedures in the conduct of our recent election.”
The message goes on to explain some of the potential issues with emailed and postal mailed ballots. It also states, “no challenge to the election was filed contending members failed to receive ballots and/or were otherwise denied the right to vote.”
Rising disenchantment with how the most recent election process was conducted was first reported by The News Journal on Feb. 16. The voting process, according to the emails reviewed by the Delaware Call and interviews with members, was riven with problems including lack of communication on eligibility and unclear voting instructions from administration, as well as technical issues. In some cases necessary paper ballots arrived at the last minute or not at all.
While voting was available from January 9 through the 24 of this year, the online ballot was difficult to access via a mobile phone browser or in certain mobile email applications. This required the union members to have a home computer and internet access to get their ballots. This can be a difficult obstacle for many union members, which include not only classroom teachers but also paraprofessionals, food service staff, transportation, school nurses, therapists, counselors, school office staff, custodial services and retirees.
In an email to board candidates on Jan. 18, 2023, during the election window, the executive assistant in the DSEA Administration office in Dover, and the assigned point person for troubleshooting procedural issues, Sandy Dearman, wrote, “I have found that if you look through emails on your cell phone, you might not see the ballot. Please try logging into your account on a computer.”
La’Sonya R. Wiggins, a paraeducator in the Colonial school district, reports in her official challenge that she made multiple requests for an email ballot and only received it a day before the election ended. Wiggins states that a paper ballot sent as a backup didn’t arrive until after the election window closed. Furthermore Wiggins reports that a new employee never received a ballot and was shut out of the process.
Another Colonial educator, Suzy Hessling, described a fraught and difficult process in her email challenging the results:
DSEA is utilizing a system that is confusing and complicated for members with technology access, and this system is even more difficult for members without easy access to a laptop or desktop computer. Furthermore, DSEA did not systematically inform ALL members of their eligibility to vote or that it was time to vote. As a labor union, DSEA should be committed to Voting Rights. Instead, DSEA is engaging in voter suppression.
The election was contentious and had political overtones. The executive director of DSEA, Jeff Taschner, an attorney who was previously the group’s general counsel, is also a voting member of the State Employee Benefits Committee. Taschner, along with the other nine members of the benefits committee, voted to switch retired state employees to a Medicare Advantage healthcare plan on Feb 28, 2022, a move that prompted outcry, including from a score of retired elected state senators and representatives, to not only organize against this change but also make challenges on legal grounds which were eventually dismissed.
Exacerbating all of this is a contamination crisis with the water supply in Delaware schools. Elevated levels of lead have been identified at dozens of schools. And, after a botched examination in 2020, testing on new samples has yielded some very concerning results.
Late last year, a challenge to the DSEA executive board leadership was launched by Dawn Alexander and Tameka Mays, for board president and vice president respectively. While not bound on a unity ticket by union rules, Alexander and Mays campaigned together on a platform of more involvement with rank and file members and a more active role in advocating for better overall working conditions.
While Mays won her election to executive vice president by a decisive margin, Alexander seems to have lost narrowly to current President Stephanie Ingram, based on preliminary counts shared with certain committee members.
When contacted by phone, Cathy Dorey, a supporter of Alexander’s who works in the Early Learning Center at Indian River School District, described a confusing voting process. In previous board elections ballots were sent directly to individual school email accounts automatically. This year members had to register personal email accounts, Dorey said. She also reported that two colleagues never received their ballots and were unable to vote.
While not submitting an official challenge, Dorey explained why she supported Alexander’s candidacy. “This is the first time someone from the union at the executive level sounded like they weren’t part of the good old boy political network.”
She also mentioned Alexander’s commitment to engaging the rank and file. Dorey gave as an example Alexander’s advocacy on behalf of House Bill 33, which would expand special needs funding to preschool students that is currently allocated only in K through 12.
Dorey questioned whether current union leaders and administrators are really committed to the state’s students, “or do they just want to move up the political ladder.”
When reached by email about his office’s role in managing the election, whether real time tallies can be viewed online during the voting window, and how the challenges will be handled, Taschner stated that this is a pending “matter of internal union business” and declined further comment.