Through six superintendents, the merger of three unions, and the advent of charter schools, Shelley Potter has been a force in the San Antonio Independent School District for more than 30 years.
Even as other teachers, administrators, and leaders moved into and out of the district, Potter remained the visible face of those she represented: the teachers and staff members who work in SAISD, a district recently characterized by significant change.
Since the early 2000s, Potter served as the president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel and before that, the San Antonio Federation of Teachers. Eight years ago, employees voted to implement term limits and on Monday, Potter’s time in office expired. Hillcrest Elementary teacher Alejandra Lopez began her four-year term as the Alliance’s new president this week.
Potter expected to spend her final days in office implementing the long-anticipated transition. But she found herself working from home instead of the Alliance headquarters at 120 Adams Street, sorting through a seemingly endless to-do list. She had to address hazard pay for those still going into work, help teachers make the switch to remote learning, and advocate for students.
In trying to address union member questions while schools were closed, she relied on previous lessons learned: Engage early with stakeholders and rely on educational research for answers.
As she reflected this week on her last three decades, the longtime union leader said she is most proud of her work to amplify the voices of those she represented. She singled out the 2003 merger of three unions, the establishment of a consultation policy for paraprofessionals, and a professional learning partnership with the school district as high points.
“The most successful changes over the years have been the changes that administration has really worked at getting staff buy-in on,” Potter said. “The buy-in and the involvement of teachers and other staff and parents and students is more important now than ever.”
The union suffered some notable setbacks under Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Potter said. There were staff layoffs in 2018, Stewart Elementary was turned over to an out-of-state charter network, and Rodriguez Elementary was forced to close.
The beginnings of a union leader
Potter came to SAISD as an elementary teacher in the 1970s without much understanding of unions. What she did understand was the teaching profession. Her grandmother began teaching when she was 17 years old, her mother started her own teaching career when Potter was in elementary school, and her dad was a college professor.
Potter’s union education came while working as a first grade teacher at J.T. Brackenridge Elementary on San Antonio’s West Side in a building without air conditioning.
It wasn’t until her third year there that the school opened a new building with a cooling system. Potter noticed a difference immediately; her students were no longer falling asleep after lunch because of the heat. Soon after, she learned that 75 of SAISD’s 92 campuses also lacked cooling systems.
Armed with this knowledge, Potter attended her first union meeting, where she raised her hand to talk about the difference cool schools could make. Tom Cummins, whom Potter eventually married, was the union leader who noticed her raised hand that day and directed her to organize a committee.
It took three years to get the school board to call a bond election, but Potter still points to the successful “cool schools” bond package as one of her career high points.
“Through that experience I really began to see our union as a vehicle through which I could work with other people to make changes that benefitted kids and really started to get a sense of the power of collective action,” Potter said.
Cummins and other union leaders tapped Potter for more leadership opportunities, and she eventually became the first vice president of the local Federation of Teachers. A few years into her union involvement, the organization’s president resigned to run for the school board and Potter stepped in. When the next election came up in 1984, union leaders talked Potter into running for president. She ran unopposed.
At first, Potter represented the smaller of two teacher unions in SAISD. The San Antonio Teachers Council, affiliated with the National Education Association, had a membership of a couple thousand while the Federation, part of the American Federation of Teachers, numbered a few hundred. But over time, the Federation grew and the Teachers Council shrank.
In 2003, the Federation, Teachers Council, and another union for paraprofessionals merged to form the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
Potter said the groups came to realize, “Why are we fighting with each other? The enemies are on the outside and that’s what we need to be looking at.”
In the first two years after the merger, the presidents from each entity worked together, but Potter eventually became the sole president.
Peaks and valleys
With frequent criticism from union members and district officials, running the Alliance wasn’t a job for a thin-skinned leader. Potter relied on a support network of close colleagues, former students, friends, and family to keep going.
“There are times over the years that there were very hurtful things said by people who didn’t know me,” Potter said. “But then I would hear from, you know, somebody who I’d taught. … These are people who know what I’m about and who know how much I care about our students and our families in the community.”
When Potter published a farewell message on the Alliance’s Facebook page, many thanked the longtime president for her service in and out of the classroom.
“Shelley, I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for you,” wrote Queta Rodriguez, a former Democratic candidate for Bexar County’s Commissioners Court. “I loved being a student in your first grade class, and even more so to have followed you as an ally, SAISD parent, and advocate for our public schools.”
Some of Potter’s toughest battles occurred in recent years when she and the Alliance opposed layoffs of 132 teachers and 31 administrators or the decision to turn over campus operations at Stewart Elementary to New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep.
Before each school board vote, Potter, dressed in a blue Alliance shirt, rallied union and community members outside the front doors of the Burnet Learning Center. She implored the crowd to speak up, often initiating call and response chants, and led the way into the board room. In both instances, the Alliance was unsuccessful in achieving its objectives.
In the last two-and-a-half years, school board President Patti Radle witnessed these fights firsthand, frequently on the opposite side of an issue from the Alliance. While recent disagreements have brought more tension to their relationship, Potter and Radle have known one another for four decades, since they both worked at J.T. Brackenridge Elementary. Radle credits Potter’s union involvement as one of the reasons she joined the Federation as an SAISD teacher.
The last two years brought some disagreements and misunderstandings, many of which were focused on SAISD’s relationship with charter schools, Radle said. Still, the school board president described the work of the Alliance as important and the relationship between the board and Potter as largely positive.
“As a teacher, she works from a place of concern about children,” Radle said. “Keeping care of teachers is a big part of improving what happens in the classroom and so I’ve appreciated her work.”
When there have been disagreements, Radle said she tries to remind the Alliance of the times the district and union have worked together. One example was when the Alliance asked the school board for better footwear for custodians to protect them against harsh floor-cleaning chemicals.
“There have been many things like that that have been very beneficial for the district to be aware of or whoever it is they are speaking up for,” Radle said.
Lopez will lead the union’s membership into future battles. She first became involved with the Alliance after Potter sought teachers interested in helping shape immigration policy for the district. Lopez was a second grade teacher at Stewart Elementary at the time and became even more passionate for union work when school board trustees began debating the Democracy Prep contract.
“Those of us who are officers and members of the [Alliance] Executive Council, we all have that same story that Shelley on a very personal level brought us into the work and made sure we had space to grow and develop as leaders,” Lopez said. “She actively creates space and shares the knowledge and understanding of public education – where it is now and where it has been in the past several decades.”
Even though she is no longer the Alliance’s president, Potter plans to stay involved in public education. A constant in SAISD over the last 36 years, Potter knows that old issues can become new again.
Decades after unions fought to equip every campus with air conditioning, the issue resurfaced. At the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, multiple air conditioning systems failed, forcing students and teachers to deal with hot classrooms.
Just as they always have, Potter and other Alliance leaders raised their concerns with administrators and worked toward a solution. Debating the issue felt familiar for Potter.
“There are times that it very much feels like, gosh, we fought that fight before and we won that fight before,” Potter said. “There are times that we make progress but then over time, some of those gains may be eroded and then we have to fight those fights again.”