Her unit was on the verge of decertification from MEA a little over one year ago when Nikki Clear took over as president of her local union representing transportation employees, food service workers, paraeducators, and secretaries. Now she’s won MEA’s Leon A. Brunner Award.
A bus driver for four years in Stockbridge Community Schools, Clear jokes that she didn’t know what she was getting into when she volunteered for the role. But she understood one glaring truth: she had to raise membership – then hovering around 20% – and hopefully lift morale and engagement.
She had less than a month to sign up enough people to save the unit, so she started with talking to folks in transportation who knew her best. They all joined. Then all the food service employees followed suit. And most of the secretaries and paras signed up, too.
Her membership percentage rocketed past 80%, a success she attributes to two factors.
To begin with, “I’m a big pain in the butt,” she says. “I said to them, ‘If you want change, let’s do this. But we’ve got to do it together.’ They all know me; they know I won’t quit until I get the job done.”
Secondly, Stockbridge is a small town. “And when I say small town, I mean I’m related somehow – by marriage at least – to three-quarters of the town.”
Quick with a smile and funny quip, she added, “My step-mom is one of the drivers. My cousin is another bus driver, and they said, ‘We’ll sign back up, but if you don’t do right, we’ll just whoop you out back.’ And I’m like, ‘Dang – I won’t blame you.’”
With that immediate task successfully completed, Clear dove into the challenge before her with a desire to learn and willingness to act. She joined MEA’s Local Presidents Academy where new leaders meet all year to explore the demands, challenges and tools of the role. She was assigned a mentor.
Clear attended the MEA Summer and Winter conferences. MEA Representative Assembly. Political Action Council, Coordinating Council, and Region 8 meetings. She is local PAC chair and a member of NEA’s LGBTQ Caucus.
Everywhere she goes, she meets other leaders and makes more connections.
Meanwhile, the bargaining team she led negotiated a strong contract with the biggest pay raises her members had seen in years. They won seven new paid holidays. This summer the team came back for language changes needed to better support members.
Education support professionals (ESP) do important work as part of a team of educators, she said – likening school to a truck with four tires. “One of those tires is the teachers, and the other three are your support staff,” she said. “If any one tire’s flat, you’re not moving.”
Her unwavering belief in and support for her members sets her apart, according to a joint Brunner Award nomination letter signed by three of those people – Jodie Jacobs, a food and nutrition employee and local ambassador, along with Brittany Monette and Debbie Fendelet, both from transportation.
“She has the compassion and drive to make us and everything better in our working family environment, and we are a family, thanks to her,” the nomination letter said. “She has fought for fair wages and better treatment and acknowledgment of the staff.
“She believes that happy, healthy employees bring positive structure to our students and everyone is an influence to these young minds.”
Clear is also taking that message to the community by creating opportunities for members of her local to get involved together in events around Stockbridge. She began in June with Day in the Village, a Father’s Day weekend tradition in town.
On short notice Clear pulled together a booth in the town square with kids’ games and donated prize giveaways from local businesses and MEA, and despite little warning she had members from various job categories step up to help in their matching orange Stockbridge Panthers t-shirts.
In the school support staff’s corner of the action, kids competed in watermelon-eating contests, shimmied under an inflatable limbo stick, tossed balls into cups, and played cornhole.
“They could take tours on the bus, and I made sure to take the keys out,” Clear quipped as the event was winding down. “It’s been amazing, and it was all last-minute. This is the first go-round; we’re just getting out into the community a lot more—wait until next year.”
But Clear isn’t waiting. She already has plans for a haunted school bus at the Fall Harvest Festival, and she’s challenged the local teachers’ union to compete in float-building at Homecoming and light-pole decorating in the community’s Light Festival benefiting charities.
In a short time, Clear’s enthusiasm and hard work has connected people from different jobs and buildings who didn’t even know each other existed before, said MEA member Kim Machette, the head cook at the high school who turned out with her dog to help at Day in the Village.
“Now we are a closer-knit group because of Nikki’s efforts,” said Machette, who has worked in the district and belonged to the union for 19 years. “We’re more integrated, and that makes it harder to say, ‘Oh, it’s just a job. I’m going to leave.’ It creates more of a family-like atmosphere.
“And then when we do things like this,” she added, waving her arm at kids and parents enjoying themselves at the festival, “it lets the community know the support staff is involved and we are a vital part of the school district.”
In addition to community building and outreach, Clear and her union ambassador – Jodie Jacobs – will soon be connecting members with a new mentoring program they applied for and were selected by NEA to test pilot in the 2023-24 school year.
Clear and Jacobs were part of a three-district team of ESP leaders – from Stockbridge, Pontiac and Escanaba – who wrote the plan, attended trainings, and will be rolling out the program to better train and support some new hires in their districts starting this fall. The hope is to extend it statewide after that.
It all comes down to doing what’s best for the kids, and that means hiring, training and retaining great people, she says: “Happy staff – happy students – happy admin.”
Clear says she loves helping kids start and end their days on a positive note as a driver. She gets to know students so she can spot when things aren’t going well and what they might need – a chance to talk or some music to listen to.
She cuts water bottles in half and Velcros them to the dashboard to add dirt and plant seeds that kids can watch grow. For March is Reading Month, she hands out books she’s collected – one a week per student – along with bookmarks and key tags.
“We’re like The Magic School Bus, always doing fun things,” Clear said.
Nikki’s motivation and drive are remarkable, says her MEA-assigned leadership mentor – Gypsia Flath, an 11-year paraeducator and four-year president of her local union in Escanaba. “She has accomplished in one year what took me four,” Flath said.
“I want to make it very clear, that we can give anyone all the information to be successful,” Flath added. “However, it is up to the mentee to turn the information into action. Nikki and her team ran like their pants were on fire!”
In June, Clear attended her first ESP Statewide Conference and there she received the Leon A. Brunner Award, which recognizes support staff members for dedication to their union, advocating for ESP member issues, and promotion of ESP careers.
Who would’ve thought just starting out last year she would be receiving a prestigious award, Clear said in her acceptance speech, crediting the learning and connections she’s made through the Presidents Academy and MEA conferences.
“One thing I’ve learned has been: We all have a voice,” she said, challenging attendees to bring one new member to the conference next year. “I figure if we all work together, we’re going to keep growing and growing and have a bigger voice, and then imagine what we can do.”