Express news profiles Shelley Potter of the San Antonio Alliance

Shelley Potter steps down after 35 years running San Antonio ISD teachers union
by Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News
June 1, 2020
In the late 1970s, the San Antonio Independent School District put a young first grade teacher named Shelley Potter in a school with boarded-up windows and no air conditioning.
No one knew what they had set in motion.Potter went to her first teachers union meeting to fight for air conditioning across the district. She steps down Monday as president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the city’s largest public sector union, after more than 35 years in leadership across its various incarnations.“I didn’t set out to be a union leader,” said Potter, 66. “I began to realize the power of collective action and that my union was actually a vehicle through which I could work to make changes to benefit kids.”

Potter shepherded her union through independent formation, a merger and subsequent growth. Her tumultuous tenure has included bumpy relationships with seven SAISD superintendents, varying degrees of success helping get friendly school board members elected, a constant struggle with public education’s biggest challenges — and a romantic subplot.

Alliance of San Antonio Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelley Potter speaks prior to a SAISD board meeting in which the board was expected to appove a contract with the charter network Democracy Prep Public Schools to operate Stewart Elementary School.

Potter went to St. Mary’s University after graduating from high school in Waco. She began teaching in 1975 at SAISD’s former Johnson Elementary on the West Side. After a year, she moved to nearby J.T. Brackenridge Elementary, where she stayed for 12 years.

Brackenridge didn’t have air conditioning when she arrived, and a replacement school was being built so close that classroom windows were boarded up because of the construction. Potter started agitating for fans in the classrooms.

When the new air-conditioned building opened, the relief was instantaneous. Potter noticed that her students were no longer sleepy in the afternoons. Then she found out that 75 of the district’s 92 schools didn’t have air conditioning, which propelled her to attend her first meeting of the San Antonio Federation of Teachers, which had 300 members at the time.

Tom Cummins, a fellow Brackenridge teacher, was running the meeting. Potter raised her hand and said something had to be done about the sweltering classrooms. Cummins asked her to head up a committee.

“I was young and naive and said yes, and had no idea what that actually entailed,” Potter said.

She started researching the effects of heat on learning, contrasting “optimal learning temperatures” with San Antonio’s highs. After three years of presentations and advocacy, her committee got the school board to place a “Cool Schools” bond just for air conditioning on the ballot, and voters approved it.

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support personnel, and the Bexar County Federation of Teachers and their supporters hold a press conference in 2004 on the steps of City Hall to protest new health reimbursement arrangements for Texas school employees. State Rep. Jose Menendez, left, is joined by Tom Cummins, Shelley Potter, Rachel Martinez, Patsy Esterline and J. B. Richeson

In the meantime, Potter and Cummins were doing a lot of block walking together for political campaigns. They married in 1984 and have remained a local teachers union power couple ever since.

Potter choked up last week thinking about the encouragement she received, from Cummins and others, when she led the air conditioning committee.

“Somebody saw in me something I didn’t see in myself,” she said. “One of the things I’ve always tried to do is that — to help others get in touch with and see the power they have, to see the leadership qualities they have, and to help them grow and develop as leaders.”

When Potter became vice president of the federation, it was the largest chapter of the Bexar County Federation of Teachers, which Cummins led. She became interim president of the San Antonio Federation when the president resigned to run for a school board seat, and she reluctantly ran for and won the permanent job, counting on others’ promises of help.

“Do you bring it home with you?” Laura Lippman, now a famous author, asked Potter in 1987 in an interview for the San Antonio Light.

“I do,” Potter told her. “He doesn’t and he won’t let me talk about it at home. There’s a joke among the staff here that if Tom is given a message to give to me at home, I’ll never get it.”

Years later, the San Antonio Federation of Teachers became its own local union. Potter and Cummins, who still leads the Bexar County Federation, have been among the longest-serving teachers union presidents in the state.

The San Antonio Federation had been dwarfed by a larger SAISD union, the San Antonio Teachers Council, and the rivalry was bitter as the two groups competed for consultation rights, or the power to represent teachers in formal discussions with the administration. Under Potter’s leadership, the federation grew to eclipse the Teachers Council and won consultation rights in the 1990s for teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff.

That squared them off against then-Superintendent Diana Lam, a reform-oriented leader whose widespread curriculum changes won national acclaim but were criticized by teachers as too quickly imposed to be successful. The conflict put San Antonio on the national stage, as a divided school board decided against buying out Lam’s contract.

The board reversed itself after Potter’s union in 1998 successfully campaigned for new trustees who took control. Lam went on to controversial terms as superintendent in small Northeastern cities and deputy chancellor of New York City schools.

Three years later, Potter led a national task force for the American Federation of Teachers on union-sponsored professional development, producing a widely used report. In 2003, the two SAISD unions merged to create the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, with more than 3,000 members and Potter at the head.

Teachers had come to realize that there was no sense in two competing unions, she said, adding that “the real enemies were on the outside, and we were fighting each other.”

Staff cuts have reduced the alliance’s numbers since the merger, but membership has risen slightly in recent years, to 2,600, Potter said. It remains one of the state’s largest teachers unions.

The new mega-union partnered with district administrators to start popular training programs for new teachers. The organization put off deciding whether to term-limit its president until eight years ago, when members voted to limit their leader to two four-year terms. June 1 became Potter’s end date.

She was named in 2016 to a national AFT racial equity task force, and the alliance and SAISD board agreed on a resolution to protect undocumented students after President Donald Trump was elected.

Then, in some of the most contentious years of Potter’s career, the union’s relationship with district leaders unraveled. In a two-month period in 2018, the board followed Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s recommendations to contract with a New York-based charter network to run an elementary school, then addressed a budget shortfall by laying off 132 teachers around the district.

The union opposed both decisions vociferously and called for Martinez’s resignation. The next spring, it campaigned hard for three board challengers, but this time, only one of them was victorious, and the superintendent still enjoys the board’s support.

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Potter said the intensity of 2018 might have been exceeded by two weeks last March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread and schools closed. Teachers could work from home, but essential personnel, including cafeteria and maintenance staff, were still reporting to buildings.

Some were immuno-compromised, and others had family members at risk. Safety protocols were fluid, and national leaders deemed masks unnecessary at the time. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, expanding paid leave, hadn’t passed. Panicked employees flooded the union with questions and messages.

“It was just that sense that if we didn’t get this right, if we didn’t advocate strongly enough around safety issues and health issues, that somebody could die,” Potter said.

Martinez, who is credited improved student achievement in the district, described his monthly meetings with Potter as cordial and respectful, noting the times they found common ground.

“I really appreciate all the service Ms. Potter has done for the community,” he said. ‘I know, in her heart, that she cares about students.”

The union elected Alejandra Lopez, 34, a second grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary, to take up Potter’s mantle.

A Southwest High School and Stanford University graduate, Lopez grew up in a labor family. Her father retired from the local ironworkers union.

“When I got hired by SAISD, I was personally very excited that that came with the opportunity to join our alliance and to become part of a really strong union within our county,” Lopez said.

Her first year teaching at Stewart Elementary left no time for union involvement, but after the 2016 election, Potter put out a call for people who wanted to work on immigration issues. Lopez jumped at the chance.

She was Stewart’s union representative when trustees decided to hand management of the school to Democracy Prep, a charter network based in New York. Lopez quickly mobilized a meeting and helped lead the unsuccessful charge against the agreement.

Lopez said Potter always developed and empowered leaders within the union.

“Shelley has always been at the heart of the broader San Antonio labor movement,” Lopez said. “When you multiply that by decades, how unwavering she has been in her commitment is really awe-inspiring. The breadth of time has been so long that it’s hard for me to conceptualize.”

Potter said she’s considering a couple of career possibilities to stay involved in public education advocacy. She has been serving on an advisory committee of the Texas State Teachers Association, the state National Education Association affiliate.

“She’s always been a teacher,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said. “She’s always been a mentor and always been a teacher to other leaders across the state. It just speaks to who Shelley is and what she stands for.”

Alia Malik covers several school districts and the University of Texas at San Antonio. To read more from Alia, become a | Twitter: @AliaAtSAEN