New Education Minnesota leader brings new style

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2013 - 10:42 PM

Denise Specht’s admirers say she’ll heed teachers’ voices and be a powerful motivator.

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Denise Specht, the newly elected president of Education Minnesota, stood in her new office at union headquarters on her second day of work in St. Paul this week.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Denise Specht steps into the leadership of Education Minnesota, the state’s powerful teachers union, at a critical point in its history.

During the last two legislative sessions, the 70,000-member union, which is near the top of the heap when it comes to spending money on lobbying, helped score major victories in boosting K-12 funding and protecting teacher seniority.

But Specht knows that major challenges are ahead. Many Minnesota teachers feel like they’ve taken a beating in the court of public opinion, and their union faces increasing pushback from foes of organized labor and from upstart education reform groups that oppose seniority-dictated teacher staffing decisions.

“There’s no doubt that educators’ morale is at an all-time low,” Specht said Tuesday in an interview. “But I believe it all comes down to respect. We have to make sure teachers are respected in their workplace.”

In April, Specht, 47, of Shoreview, handily defeated two-term president Tom Dooher for the chance to lead Education Minnesota. While the two candidates generally saw eye-to-eye on most issues, their leadership styles are very different, members say.

Dooher was generally viewed as a strong union leader, but some rank-and-file members complained that they felt personally disconnected from him. He also irritated some conservative legislators.

Specht, supporters say, is more willing to get down into the trenches with them on local education issues and seems more interested in making sure teachers’ voices are heard.

“I think Tom was the right person for us at the time,” said JeanMarie Scarr, president of the Centennial Education Association, a group Specht once led. “He was always willing to take a stand for us even if that meant drawing a line in the sand. Denise is more likely to say, ‘Why don’t you come on over to our side, or how about we meet you over there?’ She truly wants to build better relationships.”

A talent for motivating

Specht, a native of the western Twin Cities exurb of Buffalo whose parents were teachers, got her first teaching job in 1989 in Progreso, Texas, a border town shaped by extreme poverty. Specht interviewed for the job by phone and drove to south Texas five days after accepting it.

“I found out that when families and educators work together, great things can happen,” she said. “In the Rio Grande Valley, parents saw education as a way out of poverty.”

Specht returned to Minnesota three years later to accept a job in Forest Lake. In 1995, she moved to the Centennial district, where she taught for more than a decade.

Her former colleagues in that district say Specht had a knack for motivating students whether they were the brightest in the class or struggling.

“I always found her rooting for the kids — and even staff members — who might go unnoticed otherwise,” said Colleen Miller, a Centennial special education teacher. “She’s such a smart and creative person who is great at pulling out the best in people.”

Specht became active in the Centennial teachers union after a colleague who served as a building steward got a cancer diagnosis.

“That’s what happens in a school when one of your family members needs help. You step up,” she said.

She further immersed herself in the union, and in 2007 she decided to run for Education Minnesota’s secretary/treasurer, and won.

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