Claire Scholz admits that when she first became president of the Loudoun Education Association, she dreaded some of the phone calls she had to make.
Before dialing, she would stare at the phone and steel herself, preparing to face principals she had worked with in her years as a teacher or administrators she had known only from afar. With her new job title, Scholz was charged with asking pointed questions and demanding hard answers, sometimes from former colleagues.
"There are a lot of things I've done because I'm president of the LEA that I would never do as Claire Scholz, a private individual," said Scholz, 53, who stepped down Wednesday after heading the teachers advocacy group for four years.
What has been perhaps surprising, however, is that such tough moments were few and far between, she said. Instead, Scholz said, she tried to cultivate a close professional relationship with administrators and School Board members, girded by the belief that even when they might disagree, each ultimately wanted only to improve education.
Her vision of a noncombative teachers association has been endorsed by her successor, Mac Corwine, school system energy manager, who took the reins of the 2,200-member group Thursday.
"Being confrontational, I just don't see where it accomplishes anything," Corwine said. "My nature is that you seek a win-win situation."
Teachers are not allowed to unionize in Virginia, so the LEA does not have the power to negotiate salaries on their behalf, and employees are not required to join. Corwine said that means the group must find power in its ability to persuade rather than to challenge. "The cooperation and the atmosphere we set with the administration and the superintendent is important," he said.
Still, the group was vocal under Scholz's leadership. It sponsored a rally in support of the school budget in front of the County Government Building two years ago, and this year, LEA members helped pack the 1,000-seat Heritage High School auditorium during a public hearing on education funding. Scholz spoke regularly at School Board meetings, pushing for lower classes, better salaries and kinder policies for teachers who are forced to transfer from one school to another.
Over the last four years, the organization has grown along with the county, more than doubling in membership, not only among teachers but also among school nurses, bus drivers and others.
Its message also has shifted, Scholz said, as the school system's vision of itself has changed. When she first arrived to teach at Banneker Elementary School in Middleburg in 1990, Scholz said many in the system were satisfied simply to have good schools. Now, she said, educators strive to be the best.
One aspect of the new attitude has been a major initiative to match teacher salaries to those in Fairfax County. But even with those increases, Scholz said, the LEA can't allow itself to be content.
"It's satisfying, but it's still not enough," she said. "Neither Loudoun nor Fairfax teachers are paid enough."
Former School Board chairman Joseph W. Vogric said the organization has expanded its influence in recent years, sitting in on many more School Board committee meetings, where members provide advice before decisions are made instead of after. He said Scholz's low-key, professional manner has helped convert people who might have been tempted to dismiss her point of view.
"People who are not friends of public education look at someone in that position, and they say that's just the union rep talking. She never came across that way," Vogric said.
Corwine, 56, taught for 15 years at C.S. Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg before taking the energy management job. His former boss, Evan E. Mohler, assistant superintendent for support services, said Corwine has an added advantage: He knows just about everyone in the system, from the air conditioner repairmen to principals.
Since 1993, Mohler estimated, Corwine has saved the system more than $10 million through his energy-efficiency efforts, cost savings that will give his voice added credibility.
As for Scholz, she pledged not to quit being an education advocate. When asked early last week how she would spend her first day away from the job, she immediately answered that she would be attending a county task force session on health care. That launched her into a calm but firm discourse about the dangers of cutting employee insurance benefits.
"One of the major reasons people work here is for the benefits. Bus drivers, custodians -- they're very candid about that," she said. "There's just no way to lower costs without decreasing benefits or increasing costs to employees."
Scholz will have just a few weeks' rest this summer before unpacking her boxed-up teaching supplies in preparation for her new job as consumer and family life teacher at Mercer Middle School in Aldie. After four years of representing teachers, she said she can't wait to getting back to being one.
"The sense of satisfaction you get when you see a kid who starts to make connections is a high you can't experience in anything else," she said.